Normal Mayor Chris Koos has convened a group of business leaders, health care specialists, educators, bankers and others to explore ways to navigate the pandemic and prepare for reopening.
Even among business owners, there's a wide range of opinion.
Like anyone trying to sell cars during an economic shutdown, Ryan Gremore has been feeling the pinch.
“Absolutely devastating,” Gremore declared. “I’m watching it happen in real time.”
Gremore is president of the O'Brien Auto Team that has dealerships in Bloomington-Normal and three other states. He says sales are down 55% for the year.
Koos tabbed Gremore to serve on his pandemic advisory council. Gremore is one of about 20 stakeholders asked to weigh in on how the pandemic is affecting him. Gremore has had to lay off nearly half of his 200 employees in McLean County. Some have come back now that dealers can sell by appointment. Gremore said many others are now without a paycheck for two months and counting.
“If we don’t get open soon, there’s going to be irreversible damage done to our economy here in Bloomington-Normal, and it’s going to affect people for generations,” Gremore said.
Car dealers aren't alone in their struggles. Restaurants have limited operations without dine-in service. Some have closed.
Tim Strader manages the money at Fort Jesse Cafe in Normal. His daughter owns the restaurant. It recently reopened for takeout and delivery and called back about a third of the staff. Strader said they hesitated on when to reopen because there are so many unknowns.
“The only thing that scares me is if we open up too fast,” he said, adding doesn't think Gov. JB Pritzker should reopen the economy until experts are certain COVID-19 is at a manageable level. Shutting down once was enough. Strader said they can't afford to do it again.
“I don’t think it’s sustainable, if we have to take one step forward and two steps back or two steps forward and one step back,” Strader said. “All of that is very detrimental to the small business person.”
Some small business owners take an even tighter line on reopening.
Janessa Williams of Normal owns her own accounting firm. She chairs the town's human relations commission, is a member of the local NAACP and has done various volunteer leadership at Illinois State University.
Williams doesn't want to see ISU or any college reopen in the fall. She said it seems too soon, even if the governor relaxes social distance rules over the summer.
“We’ll start to get lackadaisical about social distancing, about wearing masks and then you integrate 20,000 18-to-24-year olds who have been ‘cooped up’ with their parents for six months,” Williams said.
Williams said K-12 schools also have difficult decisions to make, when reopening, but she said they must follow public health data.
Williams said her business is down 75% since the pandemic, but the health impacts of COVID-19 are real to her. She has friends with loved ones battling the virus and who can't see them because they are quarantined. And she's all too aware African-Americans catch and die of COVID-19 at higher rates in part because so many work in frontline jobs that give them no protection.
“I’m afraid that as a country, as a state, as a county, as a town that the lives of those being lost predominantly are expendable to those making the decisions,” Williams said.
Most decisions about managing the pandemic have not yet come from local government leaders. They take their cues from the governor. But Koos said cities and the town must still make many decisions. That's why he convened the advisory committee.
“(It's) to have a better understanding of how to cautiously reopen and how to react if things take a wrong direction,” said Koos, adding he hears concerns from business owners, educators, and health care leaders and wants to accommodate them. He's not yet sure how. For now, Koos said the panel will drive the conversation.
“I’m not one to assemble a group of very dedicated and intelligent people and say, ‘Here’s the end goal, how do we get there?’ I think the end goal comes from the process of having the discussion,” he said.
Koos said he plans to convene the advisory group periodically over several months, or as long as needed.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect Williams' statement that ISU should not reopen in the fall.
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