(The Center Square) – A northern Illinois city is trying to help its local businesses stay afloat following additional COVID-19 restrictions in the region.
The city of Rochelle is offering up to $1,000 dollars a week for bars and restaurants affected by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s latest round of increased restrictions, which include shutting down indoor dining and bar service in the northwestern part of the state.
“It’s hard enough when we were open for them to make money at a 50 percent occupancy,” said Rochelle City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh. “We are in the middle of the Midwest and it’s starting to get cold and a lot of these folks aren’t going to be able to do outdoor seating.”
The grant program is scheduled to continue for the next six weeks, meaning Rochelle businesses have access to a maximum of $6,000 in funds.
“We diverted money that we were utilizing for other community development projects,” Fiegenschuh said. “You can go and do streetscapes and beautify your downtown, and you can make all kinds of changes to improve the aesthetics of your community. But if your businesses are empty and you have empty storefronts, it really doesn’t matter. So we diverted those dollars for direct assistance to those businesses.”
The new program follows one in the summer that awarded around $200,000 to twenty applicants in the city. All businesses were eligible for that round, while the new program only is for bars and restaurants.
“We have a distillery in town and they shared with me the numbers,” Fiegenschuh said. “They’re losing multiple thousands of dollars every month because of the shutdown. A one-time grant of $5,000, although it’s great, it’s really just a drop in the bucket. They’re very appreciative and it helps, but it’s not what they want. They want to be open.”
State officials said the rise in the COVID-19 positivity rate in Region 1 prompted the tightened rules.
“The concerning uptick in Region 1’s positivity rate – jumping more than two percentage points in two weeks even as the majority of Illinois continues to see downward trends demands increased efforts to stop the spread in our northwestern counties,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement announcing the changes, which apply to Boone, Carroll, DeKalb, Jo Daviess, Lee, Ogle, Stephenson, Whiteside and Winnebago counties.
Fiegenschuh argues the decision-making process doesn’t make sense.
“I think it’s fundamentally unfair that our restaurant and bar industry is being adversely affected up here,” Fiegenschuh said. “If you’re in Rockford, you can drive right across the border in Wisconsin and it is wide open. I can drive to Mendota just over the border in LaSalle County and I can go sit at a bar and have a beer and it’s okay. But if I go literally 10 miles north of the border into Lee County, I can’t do that.”
City officials said only one small business has permanently closed its doors since the start of the pandemic. But Fiegenschuh said there’s a lot of uncertainty in the local business community.
“I will tell you there a movement in this region for businesses not to close,” Fiegenschuh said. “Some are staying open, but those that close, I don’t know how long a business can stay open when they’re forcibly closed.”
To remove the added restrictions, the region will be required to average a positivity rate of 6.5% or less for three straight days. In the meantime, Fiegenschuh says someone has to step up to help keep these small bars and restaurants afloat.
“We’re doing everything we can to help keep these folks open. The state’s done nothing but put on more regulations and more rules that have caused them to close down,” Fiegenschuh said. “In a small town like this, these small businesses drive our economy. Once you start losing them, it’s really hard to get that back.”