'There's fear:' Racine business owners want education vs. COVID fines

Days after city officials in Racine announced they're toughening up on violators of COVID-19 guidelines, business owners are saying they're too tough. One woman who said a surprise visit from a health official left her with two citations.

"We knew that they were going to come down a little harder on the businesses here in Racine, but we didn’t know exactly how hard and how that was going to work," said Patti Landreman with Reefpoint Brew House.

When Racine health officials announced that they were going to be tougher on people and businesses caught violating pandemic safety procedures, the owners of the Reefpoint Brew House had no idea it would result in two citations -- one for an employee not wearing a mask, and the other for not properly displaying their business capacity sign.

"We haven’t had any run-ins with this city other than this," said Landreman. "I have no idea what the citation, how much it’s going to cost us and they have the right to cite the employee and the employer.” 

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The owner claims the employee was in a room alone and had just taken a mask off to drink some water, citing their strict health practice as to why this was a simple mistake.

"Educate us," said Landreman. "I know that we know what we have to do, but if there is something falling short, then please educate in that, rather than throwing the book at us.”

A few blocks away, Michelle Schimian at RG Natural Babies said there's growing concern that city health officials don't see business leaders as members of the same team when it comes to keeping people safe.

"At this point now there is that fear in people that if I just make a mistake, an innocent mistake, I’m going to get ticketed," said Schimian.

These business owners said they hope for clear guidance when resolving honest mistakes, instead of potentially being hit with fines they can't afford.

"It’s such a struggle enough for all of us to make ends meet right now," said Schimian. "Another ticket is just hurting us even more and steering us away from here.”

Racine Public Health Administrator Dottie-Kay Bowersox wasn't available for an interview Sunday, Nov. 1, but sent FOX6 a statement: 

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 cases continue to surge locally, in the county, and in the state as a whole. We are seeing numbers equal to or greater than what we saw last April. In the last seven days there have been over 480 COVID-19 positives reported at a positivity rate of 34%.  As we enter the holiday season we run the risk of losing complete control of the virus without significant changes to individual behaviors. Many businesses and individuals in the community are taking this virus incredibly seriously, doing what they need to do in order to stay safe, and we are very appreciative of that. At the same time, there are some in the community who could do better or who are simply refusing to do their part.  

"We have found that responding to complaints is too late to prevent the spread of the virus. It takes significant resources to do the necessary contact tracing, for the businesses to do the proper deep cleaning, and for individuals to quarantine when positive or who have had a close contact with someone who is positive. That is why, moving forward, Health Department staff with the support of the Racine Police Department will begin proactive compliance inspections.” 

"The Public Health Department generally provides a compliant based response, which at its foundation is to increase education, awareness, and information about why and how to comply with the necessary public health orders.  Thursday night of the nine establishments:  four were cited, two were in compliance, and three were provided education/information. The Public Health Department’s goal is not to shame businesses or individuals, we simply need compliance. At the same point, our rules have been in effect for months, and there is little excuse, for example, of an employee in a restaurant not wearing a mask.  

"We must continue to take the Pandemic seriously as the virus continues to spread throughout this community making individuals ill and stressing finite resources.  Individuals must be more responsible in wearing of a facial mask appropriately, social/physical distancing with individuals outside their household, and staying home when ill or this pandemic will continue its spread within the community. 

"I know the pandemic is difficult for all of us and we all want our lives to return to normal. But the COVID-19 virus doesn’t care about any of that. It is a virus that will continue to spread, make people sick, and unfortunately kill more of our family and neighbors until we as a City, a county, and really a nation come together to take the necessary, albeit inconvenient, steps to reverse the spread. I ask everyone for your help at this time, but consider this fair warning: we can and will now proactively penalize bad behavior as necessary.”