CHAMPAIGN — Annie Easterday held a sign with a simple message outside the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District in Champaign on Saturday morning.
It read: “We’ve been doing what you asked. Now we can’t pay our bills.”
The businesswoman who co-owns Pear Tree Estate in rural Champaign struggled to express her feelings about a pandemic that is clearly beyond her control.
Their wedding venue business has had 74 cancellations since March, resulting in 10 full-time and 40 part-time employees out of work.
“It’s hard to put into words. We haven’t been trying to get around the rules. I don’t want to portray that we are against the health department. We haven’t had work in nine months now. We gotta figure out some way to get help,” she said.
Easterday was one of about 100 people who turned out at the Kenyon Road offices of the public health district in support of restaurant, bar, hotel and other hospitality industry employees who want answers as to why their industry seems to be bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 burden.
“The rules … are putting people out of work, even though we are one of the safest communities,” said Dave Jones, president of One Main Development, which owns several buildings in downtown Champaign. “We have eight restaurants (in our buildings). Half are closed, the other half are barely operating.”
Jones and others at the rally, including 51st district Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, cited numbers showing Champaign County’s seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 at 1.8 percent (including tests on the University of Illinois campus), well under the governor’s threshold of 8 percent for mitigation requirements, which kicked in Nov. 20.
“It doesn’t take a CPA to understand that 1.8 is less than 8,” Jones said.
Without UI tests factored in, the formula the state uses, the seven-day positivity rate Saturday for Region 6 — 21 counties, including Champaign — remained at 8.4 percent.
Jones said only five of Illinois’ 102 counties appear to be enforcing the mitigation rules regarding a ban on indoor dining.
“Why are we sending residents to other states to dine? This community has done the testing. We appreciate that COVID is a serious health concern,” but, “the arbitrary and aggressively enforced” rules are ignoring the psychological toll on restaurant owners, Jones said.
Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz responded that “as hard as it is economically, in the interest of public health, (rule enforcement) is the right thing to do.”
Rose was critical of Pritzker for not following his own rules and for not counting the tests being done at the UI in determining the region’s positivity rate.
He said he is working on legislation to release, for small businesses, about $100 million of the $750 million he said the state has for COVID-19 relief.
Tom Briski of Urbana showed up to support Kathy and Jim Flaningam, the owners of Apple Dumplin’ in Urbana, who were also present.
“People should have the right to choose. I’m not going to participate in the funeral of my independence,” said Briski, who said he missed the Friday fish special at Apple Dumplin’ after a judge agreed Thursday with the public health district that the restaurant should not be allowed to stay open for indoor dining.
Jim Flaningam said Saturday he still hadn’t made up his mind about going to carryout.
“I’m a destination place,” he said of the restaurant on High Cross Road, on the northeast side of Urbana.
“The reason people come is for camaraderie and interaction. We have customers who, when their family members can’t get hold of them, will call the restaurant. We are known for our service as much as our food,” Jim Flaningam said.
Gary Longfellow of Mahomet, a self-described “common-sense person,” suggested that “everybody just needs to pause.”
“They vacillate,” he said of state regulations that seem to change daily. “Don’t tell me I can go to the mall or Walmart with hundreds of people but not my friend Jim’s dining room with 30 people.”
Dick Adams of Champaign is a fan of the Original Pancake House. He doesn’t understand why a “50-degree tent is safe but being in a building that is cleaner than it was when it was new” is not.
“There are so many contradictions in the way this has been handled. I care for the people (affected),” Adams said. “I just want my ham and eggs.”
Scott Tapley of Savoy, a former Champaign County Board member employed as a wealth planner, said he came to support the business owners “struggling because of unnecessarily onerous regulations.”
“I’m sympathetic to people losing their jobs, livelihoods for reasons beyond their control and that are probably not necessary,” he said.
Event organizers urged people to donate to the Champaign County Hospitality Relief Fund set up through the tourism bureau to help unemployed workers.
Donations can be made online at visitchampaigncounty.org/foundation/hospitality-relief-fund.
The bureau is accepting nominations from business owners whose workers most need the help. Among donors to the fund have been the Chamber of Commerce and the Champaign-Urbana Hotel Lodging Association.