UPDATED: McHenry County businesses concerned about effects of possible increased mitigation

With the possibility of additional COVID-19 restrictions looming over McHenry County, Melissa Blach worries about the future of her Smoothology Smoothie Cafe in Crystal Lake.

The cafe, located at 67 E. Woodstock St., would be hit hard if the county found itself under the increased business and gathering restrictions that have been enacted in other parts of the state as a way of slowing the spread of COVID-19, as McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks warned Thursday.

“I will absolutely have to close my store if things get more restricted than it is,” she said. “My business has absolutely been destroyed by this.”

Although Blach can try takeout and delivery services and can lean on the homemade hot chocolate and hot apple cider she also makes, her cafe mainly sells smoothies, making it a little more difficult during an already hard season. 

McHenry County, along with 34 other Illinois counties, was placed under warning for COVID-19 by the Illinois Department of Public Health on Friday. A county enters a warning level when two or more COVID-19 risk indicators increase.

The McHenry County Department of Health reported that it saw 102 COVID-19 new cases per 100,000 residents last week, an increase from 63 new cases per 100,000 people the week before. The target established by the state is less than 50 cases per 100,000 people per week, according to a news release from the health department. 

The test positivity rate increased to 8.6% over the Oct. 4 through 10 period, up from 6.9% the previous week, according to the IDPH. Test positivity can trigger a warning when the seven-day rate rises above 8%.

“We are seeing cases among residents aged 45 to 79 increasing at a faster rate than other groups,” Public Health Administrator Melissa Adamson said in a statement. “As families and friends begin to plan holiday get-togethers, we need to remain vigilant and continue to wear a mask and limit our close contact with anyone who lives outside our home, even if that individual is a relative.”

On Thursday, Franks said the area could see reduced capacity at its businesses and the end of indoor dining if the state’s metrics on local COVID-19 cases do not improve.

Friday’s “warning level” designation means the area does not need to put these mitigation measures into place just yet, but residents should remain vigilant, Franks said. 

“We have a reprieve. We should take advantage of it,” he said. “I’m doing everything in my power to keep us out of mitigation. I don’t want us going there.”

This means people need to social distance, wear masks and follow other COVID-19 guidelines already set in place, Franks said. 

“The next few days are crucial for us,” he said.

In a joint news release, the McHenry County health department and the Lake County Health Department urged the public to take action to slow the spread of the coronavirus to avoid mitigation measures, saying the area is “dangerously close” to passing the state’s mitigation thresholds.

“For the sake of our vulnerable residents, for our schools and our businesses, we must double down and all take personal responsibility to minimize the spread of this virus,” Lake County Health Department Executive Director Mark Pfister said.

If these mitigation measures do end up being put into place, it could prove destructive to small-business owners such as Blach. 

When restaurants and bars first had to close to indoor service, Blach said she was trying to promote curbside pickup and ordering on the phone. Still, she ended up having to close her shop at the end of March until mid-June.

Even then, when she first reopened, it started off “super-duper” slow, Blach said. 

“At this point, I don’t even know what I’m going to do,” Blach said. “I would love to continue to be open, but I have to put food on my table.” 

Dan Smith, owner of UpRooted, 2816 Route 120, McHenry, has similar concerns. He’s also frustrated that it seems as if small businesses – restaurants in particular – are being targeted.

“What goes through our place in a month’s time is probably what Walmart does in an hour or two, especially when it’s their busy time,” Smith said.

A lot of restaurants and bars already have closed or are on the brink of closing, Smith said. 

UpRooted is struggling, but so are its vendors, which has meant the establishment can’t get all of the items it was getting before, Smith said. 

“Shutting restaurants and bars down doesn’t just impact the restaurants or bars; it also impacts ... all the suppliers, and producers to farm people, everybody,” he said. 

Smith’s main concern now is, “How can we survive?”

“Obviously, we hope that McHenry County is able to maintain control and keep their numbers down,” said Bill Eich, president of the Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce. “That’s obviously first priority.”

In the event mitigations are put into place, Eich said he has written to the health department to share his thoughts about the effects of the restrictions on the business community, especially during this time of year. 

Coming into the fall and winter seasons, businesses already expect to see fewer customers, Eich said.

“Any kind of reduction in the percentage that they can have allowed in their establishment is going to be that much more detrimental [in] the future,” Eich said. 

Now, the Crystal Lake Chamber is getting the word out to businesses and people so they know more restrictions are a possibility. 

Area businesses have been good when it comes to enforcing masks and social distancing, Eich said, and they have been willing to do what they need to do to stop the spread of COVID-19, whether installing plexiglass barriers or separating people from each other. 

“It’s something that nobody plans for,” Eich said. “It was never in anybody’s budget this year to handle these kinds of extra costs, so I’ve been very appreciative of the efforts.”

McHenry County Economic Development Corp. President Jim McConoughey said he has been having regular dialogue with the presidents of various chambers to keep current information in front of them.

“People are very concerned,” McConoughey said. “Restaurants are very concerned, specifically that their total occupancy would go down and that they would be limited to outdoor activity in the colder weather. They’re trying to come up with apps and takeout and online strategies to allow them to continue to do business.”

In addition, McConoughey said his organization is trying to get as many people as possible to apply for the state’s Business Interruption Grant program, which is intended to provide economic relief for small businesses hit hard by COVID-19. 

Because local business leaders know the state and local health departments have had to try to keep COVID-19 transmission at its lowest level, they also have started campaigns to help people understand the need to wear face masks, McConoughey said. 

“I know that all of our public elected [officials], whether it’s municipal or county government or otherwise, are very concerned about keeping the economy open,” he said. “We are trying to do all the safety practices we can to limit the transmission of COVID-19 and, most importantly, to stay safe during the colder weather season.”

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