Downstate Illinois counties spared by COVID-19 — so far — are still ailing

SPRINGFIELD — The barber shops and hair salons in Downstate McLeansboro are closed, but the liquor stores are open.

The southern Illinois town of 2,872 is one of the few places in the state without a single reported case of the coronavirus.

Edgar County in eastern Illinois is another. In the hospital that serves it from an adjoining county, the beds lie empty.

But while COVID-19 has yet to reach Edgar County or Hamilton County — where McLeansboro serves as the county seat — the fears, anxiety and economic hardship from the virus have.

As it has elsewhere, the coronavirus has spread across Illinois, prompting daily briefings from Gov. J.B. Pritzker and worries about running out of hospital beds in the Chicago area.

But a few corners of rural Illinois remain as the final holdouts against the virus, so far seeing no reported cases.

Just ten of the state’s 102 counties reported no COVID-19 infections as of Friday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

That does not mean the rural communities have been spared the pain.

Hospital workers’ hours have been reduced, small businesses have closed and farmers are taking losses on their crops and livestock.

And in small towns, that has big consequences.

Billie Jean Lueke’s hair salon on Main Street in Mcleansboro has been closed for about a month.

”Well there are six of us that work there, and we’re all out of jobs. And we have had no income and no unemployment,” said Lueke, owner and operator of Salon 6.

Salon 6 in Mcleansboro, Ill, before it was ordered closed under the statewide stay-at-home order.
Salon 6 in Mcleansboro, Ill, before it was ordered closed under the statewide stay-at-home order.
Provided.

Dale E. Biggerstaff, an alderman from McLeansboro, said he does not understand why Pritzker’s stay-at-home allows liquor stores to remain open as “essential” businesse, while salons and barber shops are classified as “non-essential.”

“If our rules are being dictated by the improvement or non-improvement of Cook County, then I feel that it is not fair to the rural areas,” Biggerstaff said.

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The rules everyone must follow during the pandemic are the same for Chicago, with its 11,409 reported cases of coronavirus as of Friday, as they are for McLeansboro with zero cases.

Of course, the number of Illinois counties that are COVID-19 free is shrinking by the day as positive tests from private and county labs trickle back to state health officials.

McLeansboro Ald. Dale E. Biggerstaff, back row right, with other members of the city council.
McLeansboro Ald. Dale E. Biggerstaff, back row right, with Mayor Dick Deitz, front row center, and other members of the city council.
Provided photo.

Wayne County in southern Illinois saw its first reported case of Coronavirus Thursday, a local health official said. Along the state’s western edge, Henderson County had its first two reported cases Friday, a county official said.

Brad Flatt is chairman of the Henderson County Board, and a farmer in Media, a town of just 107 people near the Mississippi River.

He said the stay-at-home order has hurt his businesses.

With restaurants closed, and some slaughterhouses shut down as some workers have contracted the virus, livestock is in less demand. Gas prices are also the lowest they have been in years, which has hurt the demand for corn, which is used to make ethanol.

“It’s killed our market for our corn, it’s really hurt the corn end of it,” Flatt said.

But even with the economic hit to his farm, Flatt said he thinks the harsh measures to stave off the virus are necessary even for his community with so few reported cases.

“I just don’t want to go through everything we went through in the past few weeks and have to do it again,” Flatt said.

And just because communities aren’t facing the deadly virus now, it doesn’t mean many the locals aren’t shooting nervous looks over their shoulders.

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Coronavirus cases are expected, and local health officials, small-town mayors, and county board chairs have braced for what that could do to their communities.

And some health officials suspect they are seeing no cases, or a small number, because of the state-wide precautions.

“I think these rural communities, we kind of started social distancing … started following those orders ahead of the curve, before we started actually experiencing any local cases,” said Clark Griffith, administrator of the Wayne County Health Department.

And so far, the virus is affecting Downstate hospitals differently than the metro area.

Unlike Chicago, where hospital beds are in such demand that state and city officials enlisted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to convert McCormick Place into a makeshift hospital, in Downstate Mattoon’s Sarah Bush Lincoln Hospital the beds are empty.

The hospital is in Coles County, which had nine COVID-19 cases, but it serves a 10-county area that includes Edgar County, one of the few counties without a reported case of COVID-19.

Sarah Bush Lincoln Hospital, like other hospitals around the state, has had to cut all of its elective services, which has caused a massive financial strain on the hospital. To cope with the loss of revenue, the hospital has had to reduce hours for hundreds of employees, asking them to use their paid time-off now, even giving extra paid days off to some workers.

“By and large the hospital is pretty empty,” said Patty Peterson, a hospital spokeswoman.

A month ago, Pana Community Hospital in central Illinois prepared to get overrun with COVID-19 patients. Christian County and the other counties it serves have seen coronavirus cases and even some deaths.

But like many other Downstate hospitals, it has more beds free than usual. Of the 230 staff members at the hospital, 110 have been reassigned to other duties, including some doctors and nurses.

“We have suspended all elective services. That was, I would say, was 70 to 75% of our revenue so it has impacted us in such a way that we have never seen in the past,” said Trina Casner, the hospital’s president and CEO.


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