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Some B-N Shoppers, Businesses Still Cautious As Full Reopening Begins

Retired teacher Chris Albritton of Normal gets ready to put on her face mask as she walks into Eastland Mall in Bloomington to shop. Albritton said she's vaccinated against COVID-19, but she's still careful in large crowds.

“In a smaller group, it wouldn’t bother me, but in (the mall), I don’t know who they are, where they’ve been, who they are hanging out with. Even though I feel like I’m safe at this point, I wouldn’t want to spread anything just in case,” Albritton said. “Ninety-five percent does not mean 100%.”

Testing showed the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 illness. The Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine tested at 66% effective.

Illinois will move to Phase 5 of its COVID-19 response on Friday as COVID vaccinations increase, while new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have dropped. Everything can reopen with no capacity limits, but some patrons still have very different perceptions about their level of safety as the U.S. moves closer to a post-COVID society.

Some worry the more time spent in public, the greater the chance of sharing space with others who believe the pandemic is overblown. One man who spoke to WGLT wouldn't give his name, but said he'll wear a mask only at work because his company requires it. He thinks public health messaging on masks in a scare tactic.

“I think there’s a lot more to it than what we see with the masks. I think it was a way to control people, to be honest,” he said. “It scared people. It put them indoors. They are still scared—scared of nothing. I didn’t get sick.”

Nearly 600,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States. The man said he doesn't know anyone who died, or got sick for more than a day or two from contracting the coronavirus, adding he's frustrated many businesses will keep their mask requirements in place.

Still masking up

Beauty In A Blink is one such place. The beauty shop inside the mall plans to keep its mask requirement. Owner Chimaya Williams said she's vaccinated, but she's still concerned she or her staff could get the coronavirus from a customer.

Store window inside mall
Eric Stock
Beauty In A Blink opened last September at Eastland Mall

“When it comes to others possibly claiming they are vaccinated and may or may not be, I don’t know how I personally feel about the masks potentially going away. That’s also because I have a lot of family members with a compromised immune system,” Williams said.

Williams opened her store last September at the height of pandemic restrictions, so she doesn't know what a typical year for her business will be like. She said most of her customers come by appointment for eyelash extensions, and looks forward to seeing more people come back to the mall as restrictions ease.

“I definitely expect more foot traffic,” said Williams, adding the mall plans to return to regular hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. “We definitely expect more business.”

COVID financial impact

The pandemic has been tough on a lot of businesses, even well-established ones. Pam Kowalewski and her husband, Dana, have owned the Vrooman Mansion in Bloomington for 20 years.

Vrooman Mansion exterior
Facebook/Vrooman Mansion
Pam and Dana Kowalewski have owned the Vrooman Mansion in Bloomington for 20 years.

The mansion is a bed-and-breakfast that relies on special events for nearly half of its business. Kowalewski said Vrooman went from hosting about 100 weddings, bridal showers and other celebrations in 2019 to about five last year.

She said COVID relief grants and a small business loan kept the mansion open, but recovering from the financial hit will take years.

“Without this financial support, I think there are many businesses that wouldn’t have made it through, possibly including us,” Kowalewski said.

She said the mansion already has booked events for three-fourths of weekends for the rest of the year, but she's eager for community events such as the Illinois Shakespeare Festival to return. She said that will bring more overnight stays to her B&B.

“By opening up to Phase 5, just for overnight accommodations, having events in Bloomington-Normal are going to increase tourism in general, by having festivals and concerts, etc.,” Kowalewski said.

Will they come back?

The success of those special events still depend on how willing people will be to venture back out — masked or not. Mall shopper Kelly Martin of Bloomington said he's glad to see the state relax COVID rules.

Martin hopes it will help businesses get back to full strength, so he's not left wondering if a shop is open and whether it will have what he wants.

“I get a little irritated sometimes waiting on stuff to open up,” Martin said. “Back then (before the pandemic) stuff was always open. Now, it’s limited and stuff is always running out faster.”

Retired teacher Chris Albritton said she and her husband feel more comfortable going shopping again in person. For months, the only in-store shopping they did was at the grocery store and even then, they went one at a certain time to try to avoid potential COVID infection.

“I didn’t even go into a retail store, I’ll be honest,” Albritton said. “Any shopping I did for myself clothes-wise I did online. Amazon got a lot of our business in the last year.”

Albritton said now she notices clerks at some stores are wearing masks, while others aren't. But she said since she’s vaccinated, she feels safe.

According to the Restore Illinois plan, people who are vaccinated no longer need to wear a mask — unless they are in a health care facility, congregant setting, school or daycare or on public transportation.

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