Gary Manier, in mid-May, faced an impossible decision. As the mayor of small-town Washington, Illinois, he led the charge in reopening the city amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Balancing the town’s economic health with the health of its citizens wasn’t easy — it was a matter of life or death.
“This community is resilient, but we want to make sure the people stay safe,” Manier said recently. “This isn’t if someone we know is going to die from this, it’s when, and I think that’s probably a true statement.”
Washington lies about 150 miles south of Chicago. With a population of about 16,000, the city has seen just six positive COVID-19 cases as of May 23. Still, residents are feeling the burden of the pandemic.
David Jane, a beloved town pastor, understands the strain this choice has created for Washington residents.
“I feel like we’re definitely in that period of tension right now where, on the one side, we’re very concerned about the health implications that we can have on people who we don’t want to get sick,” Jane said. “But then on the other side, we also were worried about the implications of being shut down for such a long period of time that it starts to have a long-term impact on the country.”
As Gov. J.B. Pritzker weighed easing restrictions with maintaining the stay-at-home order, some Washington residents feel the precautionary decisions that were made in Springfield were not justified, considering the expected damage to their local economy.
They are now struggling to protect businesses they’ve built while maintaining the health of the community they love.
Amy Morgan, the owner of Le Fleur Flower Boutique, is grateful she still has her business. Her team has faced an immense workload making door-to-door deliveries across the region, yet the event space in the shop has been closed. She has begun a limited reopening.
Though how her shop will run in the future is still unknown, she’s grateful that she won’t have to close.
“In the last nine weeks I’ve worked harder than I ever have worked in my life,” Morgan said. “With that being said, there’s a certain satisfaction to have a business that people can come back to work at. There’s so many businesses that were forced to shut down or just gave up.”
Local businesses faced a great disadvantage after being deemed nonessential under current Illinois restrictions, while their corporate counterparts, including the town’s local Menards, were allowed to stay open. Menards, which sells garden supplies, is an example of a big-box retailer still seeing business while the local garden shop across the street was ordered to close. Where, asked Washington’s residents, was the justice in that?
Because local businesses were primarily shuttered for two and a half months, owners have gotten creative while looking for ways to stay connected.
Morgan points to the messages people attached to the floral arrangements she delivers around the region. She said she feels like these messages — “I love you,” “We miss you” and “Stay home!” — helped keep the community together during this period of separation.
Stephanie Bernardi Brott’s mission has been to serve hot meals. As the third-generation owner of her family’s restaurant, Bernardi’s, under Phase 2 of the state’s plan, could do a carryout-only operation. The restaurant itself was empty.
“I miss the laughter and I miss the conversations,” she said. “And the people coming through the door, obviously.”
Despite the fact that much of Illinois moved into Phase 3 of Gov. Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” plan on May 29, allowing restaurants to open their outdoor seating only, Bernardi Brott said it won’t be the same.
“I want them to come in and sit at the bar, sit at the dining room table, enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the experience,” she said.
The frustrations of local business owners and small-town residents boiled into an anger directed at the metropolis to their north.
To some, Chicago’s high infection and death rate weighed too heavily into Pritzker’s response to the pandemic statewide. They said it overshadowed the pockets of the state with fewer infections and deaths.
Jim Linsley owns Lindy’s Downtown Market, a local grocery store in Washington. If he lived in Chicago, he said he’d have a mask on all the time — but he’s insistent that Chicago and Washington have different situations. He is worried that treating them as the same will be economically devastating for Washington.
“There’s no question that this virus can do what it does, but this is a huge overkill,” Linsley said. “Chicago is not like southern Illinois. We don’t have people living on top of each other like they do up there.”
Linsley questions whether all of Illinois should be under the same restrictions if urban areas, like Chicago, are the ones getting hit hardest.
Mayor Manier thought the town should reopen earlier, citing only 70 cases and four deaths due to COVID-19 in all of Tazewell County, home to Washington, as of the end of May. Manier joined a coalition of 11 southern Illinois mayors in championing the reopening of their part of the state.
“If we’re looking at the hospital beds available here and the type of medical professionals we have in this region, I think it’s safe that we could open,” Manier said. “These small businesses, we got to give them a chance to make sure they keep their door open and continue to get some type of normalcy back to their life.”
How the town will get through the pandemic’s fallout is an open question, just as it is for the rest of the country. But unlike many other places, Washington has had practice surviving devastating events.
In 2013, a tornado tore through the town, damaging much of its infrastructure and displacing residents. Still, within two years, they rebuilt, establishing a new town motto: “Washington Strong.”
Pastor Jane said he thinks the tornado was a test for the town — one they passed and can apply to the adversity they’re facing now.
“Every community likes to think it’s strong, and the only way you really know how strong the community is, is how it handles a test,” Jane said. “I think we proved our strength following the tornado.”
Amy Morgan thinks the blow of the economic impact will be softened by the resiliency that local entrepreneurs have established since the tornado.
“Because businesses seven years ago had to go through this reality, I do think some of them are willing to re-adapt quicker,” she said.
As Illinois reopens, Manier contemplates how Washington will handle it all. He said the health of the town will be dependent on every resident maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask while indoors.
That new reality is one residents may not be ready to embrace. Ironically, a tornado is easier to understand and deal with than an unseen, ever-present plague. Jim Linsley said given a choice between coping with a tornado and coping with COVID-19, most residents would take the tornado.
“You wanna have another tornado? Or do you wanna have COVID-19? What do you think the answer will be? I’ll bet you that everybody will answer tornado. That tells you a lot about it,” Linsley said.
Reporting by DePaul’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence.