DeKALB – Government and business leaders want restaurants, churches, campgrounds and fitness centers, among other businesses to be allowed to reopen in 10 days, at which time DeKalb County is expected to enter into Phase 3 of the state’s reopen plan.

In a letter shared with the media shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, DeKalb County Board Chairman Mark Pietrowski, along with Vice Chair John Frieders (both writing on behalf of all 14 municipal leaders countywide) implored Gov. JB Pritzker to consider amendments to his Phase 3 plan as it relates to DeKalb County being able to reopen businesses following strict guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We respectfully ask that churches, restaurants, fitness centers, RV sites and campgrounds, among others not currently allowed in Phase 3, be authorized to reopen under the guidance of our local, state and federal health organizations to safely protect workers and their patrons,” the letter reads.

The DeKalb County Health Department has not signed onto the letter.

In an email when asked for comment, health department Administrator Lisa Gonzalez said that although she empathizes with area businesses, she doesn’t support straying from the Restore Illinois plan laid out by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“I realize that everyone is impacted by the stay-at-home order at some level and personally I cannot wait for the time when the community is able to open up fully,” Gonzalez said. “I sincerely empathize with businesses that are being negatively impacted by this and we are working regularly with local businesses as they develop their plans to reopen safely,” Gonzalez said in the email. “But in my professional opinion, I believe that the Restore Illinois Plan is based on sound public health principals and would hesitate opening up things too quickly as that may result in having to move backwards in the identified phases.”

Gonzalez said she recommends a cautious approach to reopening.

“I would choose to err on the side of caution and follow the plan for a phased reopening,” she said. “We all know that we are not truly going back to normal until a vaccine is developed or an effected treatment is identified, and it is my role to use the evidence that we currently have and protect the public by supporting the identified mitigation strategies. As businesses do reopen, I encourage them to follow the available guidance closely and to take precautions seriously in order to protect their employees and the public.” 

The letter to the governor was sent on behalf of the business community and the DeKalb County Mayors Forum, which is made up of Cortland Mayor Russell Stokes, City of DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith, City of Sycamore Mayor Curt Land, City of Genoa Mayor Mark Vicary, Village of Hinckley President Nancy Nelson, Village of Kingston President Jim Baenziger, Village of Kirkland President Ryan Block, Village of Lee President Josh Carlson, Village of Malta President Robert Iversen, Village of Maple Park President Kathleen Curtis, City of Sandwich Mayor Richard Robinson, Village of Shabbona President Donald Goncher, Village of Somonauk President Aaron Grandgeorge, and the Village of Waterman President Darryl Beach.

Attached to the governor’s message was a second letter written by the DeKalb County Unites group, a business coalition formed at the start of the pandemic which includes DeKalb County chambers of commerce, the DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau, the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation and local small business owners.

They said businesses have already had to close permanently due to continued closures.

“Despite our best efforts, a number of small businesses in our community have made the sad decision to close their doors forever,” the UNITES letter reads. “Every day, we talk to businesses who are struggling mightily to hold on one more week. Or one more day.”

The group said local restaurants are attempting to keep afloat with carry out or delivery family-style meals, which bring in about 10% of their regular revenue.

Larger retail stores, such as Walmart, Target, Home Depot and other big box stores have remained open throughout the stay-at-home orders because they sell “essential” items as outlined by the executive order.

The UNITES group said that’s been devastating on smaller retailers.

“Worse yet, small retailers are bringing in no revenue as they watch big box stores -- tough competitors during the best of times -- ring up record sales selling the same goods that small retailers have been unable to sell because they can’t operate.”

Pietrowski, who announced Monday he’s vying for Cortland Mayor in the 2021 election, said in conference calls to the respective town leaders, he heard them voice concerns over loss of revenue due to continued closures.

“We hear regularly from our small businesses and our religious community about the desire to open safely under guidance from our public health experts,” the letter states. “Our county is a rural area consisting of many small towns that are suffering from their small business being unable to operate, pay their bills and retain employees.”

The letter also cited additional expenses due to the pandemic, including pension obligations for first responders.

Many municipalities across DeKalb County have already begun to estimate financial fallouts from the economic crisis caused by state-mandated closures in an attempt to slow the spread the viral respiratory disease.

Preliminary estimates in DeKalb, the county’s largest municipality, show a $4.5 million loss from drops in expected revenue from sales, restaurant and bar and hotel/motel taxes. Sycamore has not yet declared a number, but expected impacts are coming, said City Manager Brian Gregory in the council meeting Monday.

The UNITES group said they recognize that other parts of the state are dealing with the virus at different levels, but the need for movement to ensure economic regrowth remains.

“We recognize the need to reopen our businesses safely and we appreciate the rigor of the Restore Illinois plan,” the letter reads. “We implore you to allow local leaders to institute locally-informed safe practices to allow our businesses to reopen as soon as possible.”

This article has been updated to include comments from DeKalb County Health Department Administrator Lisa Gonzalez.

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