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'Closed for business': As the pandemic lurches on, local restaurants 'hanging on by a thread'

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, DeKalb had 126 bars and restaurants and Sycamore had 67, according to local restaurant and bar tax data.

As a ban on indoor dining crawled past the one-month mark this week, that number gets chipped away almost daily. As of Friday, known restaurants that have announced temporary closures include the Tavern on Lincoln and Tapa La Luna in downtown DeKalb and Hink’s Bar & Grille, Nina’s Taco Shop and Taxco Mexican Cuisine in downtown Sycamore. None have announced an exact reopen date, amid the never-ending flip-flop of dining regulations as COVID-19 cases surge.

Restaurants that have announced permanent closures include Cassie’s Corn Crib Cafe, The Pantry Cafe, Ren’s Chinese Restaurant and Ristorante Di Acquaviva in Sycamore, all citing financial impacts that hit hard these past seven months as lack of dining options cast a shadow over struggling revenue.

Five of those Sycamore businesses announced their decision within a week of each other.

Brian Gregory, Sycamore City Manager, said that restaurants closing is “extremely difficult because they’re owned by our community members, friends and neighbors.”

“Restaurants are closing, we have to ask ourselves what can we do,” Gregory said. “Restaurants are where we all come together. There have been so many memories made in restaurants. They’re such a big part of our community and our culture. But like every other business, they’ve been significantly impacted during the pandemic. They survived the first closures and evolved their business models only to have enhanced mitigations placed on them in October.”

Cases of the viral respiratory disease are record-breaking in DeKalb County — the latest with 115 cases reported Friday, just shy of the 120-record mark hit a week prior — and marks a fall surge being felt across the state and country.

Mitigations mandated by Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health began Oct. 3 as a result of rising cases, with restaurants and bars bearing the brunt of strict shutdowns in the geographical health area known as Region 1. Since Oct. 3, bars and restaurants have been prohibited from allowing indoor dining, and are also limited to groups of 10 or fewer, with tables limited to six or fewer for outdoor dining.

Pushback from local business owners has been strong across both DeKalb County and the region, with many declaring further shutdowns would mean the end of their livelihoods.

“They’re hanging on, many by a thread,” DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas said. “They tried to brave it the first time, and now they’re hunkering down and doing their very best.”

Paul Borek, executive director of the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation, said that “now, more than ever, heightened support of local restaurants and hospitality providers is critical.”

“As you know, the recent increase in positive COVID-19 cases has resulted in the shutdown of indoor dining once again, critically endangering the survival of our local restaurants and hospitality providers,” he said. “Regretfully, some have already announced closures.”

To encourage families to shop and eat local, DeKalb County UNITES is awarding restaurant gift cards. Families that take a photo of themselves supporting a local restaurant and sharing it on social media with the hashtag #DKCUnites will have the opportunity to win a gift card. Winners will be drawn every Friday.

Matt Duffy, executive director of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, said one of the biggest difficulties for local businesses are the “rules that are changing so often.”

“Restaurants were open, then closed, then open, then closed again,” he said. “Things were getting better, now we’re going backwards. How can a restaurant plan for that? They have food they have to order, staff hours they have to plan. Everything keeps on changing. Owners have done everything they can do to sustain their business, but it’s been very difficult.”

Duffy also said that Gov. JB Pritzker’s latest mitigations, which do not allow indoor restaurant or bar service, “hit restaurants even harder than in March.”

“They haven’t had a chance to bounce back from the first round, and now the regulations are becoming more and more strict,” he said.

Nicklas said restaurants are “taking it day by day, doing their best as colder weather and the holidays approach.”

“With the holidays approaching, try to shop locally instead of on Amazon or online,” Duffy said. “Support your local businesses in the community to make sure they remain here. Buy a $20 or $50 gift card to help boost the local economy. If you do your part, it will make a big difference.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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