COVID-19 Across Chicago: Quad Cities


Iowa, Illinois’ neighbor to the west, is kicking its reopening plan into full gear. Beginning last week, restaurants were allowed to open to dine-in customers at 50% capacity. That presents a problem for the Quad Cities area, especially for Rock Island, Moline and East Moline, which are situated on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.

There are big health and economic differences on each side of the river. The Illinois side of the Quad Cities has seen more than twice the number of COVID-19 cases than the Iowa side. Rock Island County reports 652 cases of the virus with 24 deaths; Scott County, home of Davenport, has seen 323 cases and eight deaths.

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Local officials attribute some of that to an outbreak at a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant just east of the Quad Cities in Joslin, Illinois, that resulted in 92 cases and two deaths last month. The company closed for a few days soon after for a deep cleaning before reopened. 

WTTW News was not able to reach company representatives, but United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1548 President Bob O’Toole says workers are encouraged by safety precautions that were put in place. The plant instituted automatic temperature screeners for all workers entering and exiting the plant. O’Toole says the plant has allowed paid sick time for workers who don’t feel safe. But O’Toole says President Donald Trump dropped the ball with his executive order forcing meat packing plants to keep operating, because there was no corresponding plan for more personal protective equipment, or PPE.

“We’re happy Tyson has enforced PPE, but certainly more improvements should be put in place,” O’Toole said. “The president should have ordered enhanced safety precautions with his executive order to keep meatpacking plants open.”

Tyson is one of the area’s large employers, along with the John Deere Company. But there could be a major reordering of the local economy because of the difference in regulations between Iowa and Illinois.

Iowa is on its way to a full reopening. Beyond restaurants, movie theaters will be allowed to open Friday, and bars soon after that.

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Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce President Paul Rumler says Illinoisans are flocking across the river to spend their money, and it could lead to permanent damage to businesses in Rock Island and Moline.

“People are going to the hair salon in Iowa, the restaurants in Iowa. That’s something that concerns us,” Rumler said. “You’re starting this new practices where businesses in Illinois are hurt even harder when they need more and more support. You might see that trend increase in the coming weeks, and it may become a permanent habit, where businesses start relocating to Iowa.”

On Davenport’s riverfront, the Front Street Taproom was packed Thursday with dine-in customers enjoying socially distant meals, with tables moved further apart, and some labeled off limits due to health protections. Front Street chef Matt McDonald says there’s been a boom in business.

“As soon as they let us open back up, it was just nonstop,” McDonald said, touting the restaurant’s effort at keeping customers safe. “Even at half capacity, we’re doing to go orders, and it’s great. We clean the tables with soap and water, we go back over them again with hand sanitizer, everybody in the kitchen is masked and gloved up at all times.”

But across the river in Rock Island, it’s a different story. The normally bustling area of 3rd Street, with mainstays like the Rock Island Brewing Company, is a ghost town. Illinois could move into phase three of a five-phase reopening plan by the end of next week. That doesn’t include dine-in services for restaurants, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker has revised the plan to allow for limited outdoor dining starting at the end of the month. (Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says Chicago will not follow suit.)

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Consuelo Gonzalez, owner of El Patron restaurant in downtown Rock Island, says she fears her customers will abandon her business in favor of those in Iowa.

“With the reopening in Iowa, we saw a downfall for us over the weekend,” Gonzalez said. “People want to be more alive. So the dine-in took a toll on us.”

But could Iowa’s reopening plan lead to a new outbreak of COVID-19? That’s exactly what the medical providers at Genesis Health System, a hospital based in Davenport but located all throughout the region, are watching for.

“We’re monitoring our numbers very carefully every single day. It’s a big risk having Illinois doing something different than Iowa,” said Lisa Caffery, RN Infection Prevention Coordinator at Genesis. “But everyone should practice what both governors have asked for, social distancing, at restaurants, stay within your table.”

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz


Covid Across Chicago

How is the novel coronavirus impacting local businesses, residents and social service agencies across the city and region? And how are local leaders handling the crisis? We hit the streets to answer those questions and more in our ongoing reporting series, COVID-19 Across Chicago. See where we’ve been and what we’ve discovered in this overview.


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