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Local officials, Chamber leaders worry more COVID-19 restrictions could hurt small businesses

As possible COVID-19 mitigation efforts loom over McHenry County, officials worry what additional restrictions could mean for the area’s small-business owners.

Tracking the long-term effects that COVID-19 might have on small businesses isn’t an exact science, but data shows that 26% of the bank accounts belonging to local businesses have been either idle or shown a decline in their overall balance, McHenry County Economic Development Corporation President Jim McConoughey said.

Those businesses that have managed to stay afloat vary by city, but tend to include restaurants that offer carry-out, drive-thru or delivery options, according to several local Chambers of Commerce leaders.

“We have a couple breweries in town now. They’re strictly carry-out and that makes it tougher on them,” Huntley Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Larry Cornett said.

Despite social distancing guidelines and capacity limitations, McHenry County residents have done what they can to support their local bars, restaurants and retail shops, Chamber leaders said. Some businesses were able to make do in the summer, with upgrades to new air filters and sneeze guards and funds from Payroll Protection Program loans.

McHenry County businesses received millions of dollars and retained more than 47,000 employees through the federal Paycheck Protection Program amid statewide COVID-19 shutdowns. Crystal Lake-based Shaw Media was among those businesses to receive a payroll protection loan.

For many, however, those funds have since run out, and upgrades weren’t worth the investment for every local businesses owner. Even with the assistance of different COVID-19 relief loans or grants, Woodstock frozen yogurt shop Chilly Willie’s closed its doors on Sunday.

“It just got to the point where it was like how far do you want to go into debt,” owner Chrissy Huelsman said.

The four to five businesses Woodstock has lost as a result of COVID-19 included a handful of owners who already had considered retirement and couldn’t justify pricey infrastructure investments, Woodstock Chamber of Commerce President Danielle Gulli said.

“Our small businesses that are still open are just kind of getting by and trying to wait this out,” Gulli said.

Throughout the summer, restaurants offered outdoor dining and park-goers distanced themselves as they watched live entertainment feet away from other audience members. But on Monday afternoon, with temperatures in the low 30s, the historic Woodstock Square was quiet as shop owner Patti Zasada tended to her empty gift shop. A banner of pink paper that read “store closing” adorned the front windows along with signs advertising face masks and clearance prices.

“I didn’t open a store just so I could close it 11 years later,” Zasada said.

Zasada opened her Christian-based gift shop Soul Focus in McHenry in 2009. The storefront moved to its current 120 N. Benton St. location in Woodstock in 2012, where business remained steady for several years. By 2018, however, sales were down. When statewide COVID-19 restrictions took effect, Zasada began to worry about the rent and utility bills that still were due.

“COVID[-19] really was just the icing on the cake,” she said.

Zasada is one of many business owners throughout the county fighting to stay open.

McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks said he fears that additional state-enacted mitigation efforts, which could take effect as early as this week if metrics don’t improve, would only further hurt stores like Soul Focus.

“Some of these businesses aren’t going to be able to open again,” Franks said.

As more businesses reach a breaking point, chamber leaders worry about the possible long-term effects.

“We’re seeing trends nationally that commercial property values are dropping,” Gulli said.

On Friday, the County Board chairman sent a letter to Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike, warning against “one size fits all” mitigation measures. Monday marked the first day that the region that is made up of Lake and McHenry counties surpassed the 8% positivity rate threshold.

If the region continues for two more consecutive days at or above 8%, both counties could experience enhanced mitigation efforts. Those measures would come from the state level and likely affect the county’s bars and restaurants, Franks said.

“It’s a lot different from the stuff we had before. Let’s be clear on that,” Franks said. “It’s really just aimed at bars and restaurants.”

Franks had not heard back from the IDPH as of Monday afternoon, he said.

Even with restricted hours and manpower, there are ways for McHenry County residents to continue supporting local businesses, Gulli and Cornett said.

Ordering delivery or carry-out from local restaurants, buying gift cards at small businesses and shopping online from local sellers all are ways that McHenry County residents have helped the area’s small businesses stay afloat.

“I think the community’s been really amazing,” Gulli said.

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