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For Downstate Illinois, coronavirus crisis ‘is going to devastate families’

In Illinois, the COVID-19 focus has been squarely on Chicago, but the hardships, fears and worries have spread across the state, even if the overwhelming majority of cases are in Cook County, not the state’s other 101 counties.

Downstate Jacksonville’s town square sits empty on Sunday
Downstate Jacksonville’s town square sits empty on Sunday.
Neal Earley/Chicago Sun-Times

The transient slaughterhouse workers of Beardstown still fill the rooms at the Budget Inn in the small central Illinois town, but the motel owner admits, beyond that “business is very slow.”

Some 30 miles southeast in Jacksonville, a sewing supply shop has closed its doors, posting instructions on how to make protective face masks, next to a plastic bin to collect donated masks.

And in southern Illinois, a small-town mayor worries that the economic downturn will lead to a spike in the already above-average suicide rate.

“The majority of people — especially in Southern Illinois — live pay-check to pay-check, and one day off work or two days off work — it is going to devastate families,” Mount Vernon Mayor John Lewis said.

In Illinois, the focus on the coronavirus crisis has been squarely on Chicago, but the hardships, fears and worries have spread across the state, even if the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 cases are in Cook County, not the state’s other 101 counties.

And that has some public officials questioning Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decisions.

For state Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, the economic loss from the social-distancing is too much for rural Illinois. He’s calling for the Chicago Democrat to ease stay-at-home restrictions for less-densely populated Downstate Illinois.

“We already have built-in social distancing to begin with,” Halbrook said.

Like it has in much of the country under similar orders, life in Downstate Illinois has slowed during the coronavirus pandemic. Shops have closed, restaurants are only open for takeout or drive-thru and stores are devoid of any toilet paper.

But while it has slowed, it has not stopped.

Beardstown City Hall.
Beardstown City Hall.
From cityofbeardstown.org/

Along the Illinois River, visitors to Beardstown are welcomed into the small city with a green sign listing the estimated population of the rural Illinois town — 5,800. The city is famous for being the site of one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous cases as a country lawyer and where, according to one of his confidants, the future president believes he was infected with syphilis.

Today, despite the global pandemic, Beardstown’s top employer, the JBS plant, still has its lights on.

And the town’s other businesses are grateful.

Despite an overall slowdown, the Budget Inn is benefiting from the transient workers who still need somewhere to sleep.

Budget Inn motel in Beardstown, Ill.
Budget Inn motel in Beardstown, Ill.
Neal Earley/Chicago Sun-Times

“Nope, everything is good,” said owner Jignesh Shah.

About a mile down the road from the Budget Inn, sits the sprawling, fenced-in slaughterhouse.

The pork-producing plant is a critical link in the food supply chain. That means under a state order, while most businesses are closed, the JBS plant it is an “essential business” and can continue to operate.

Jignesh Shah, owner of the Budget Inn in Beardstown
Jignesh Shah, owner of the Budget Inn in Downstate Beardstown, said he is not worried about coronavirus hurting his town.
Neal Earley/Chicago Sun-Times.

To remain open, JBS scrubbed the plant down with bleach.

The walls were so coated that one worker said it nearly stained employees’ clothes.

Initially, JBS offered workers hand sanitizer. Now that’s gone, and they’re offering rubbing alcohol.

“Everything smells like bleach,” said plant worker Sirrell Youngblood.

The whiff of fear is also in the air.

In Mount Vernon, virtually everything is shuttered or empty — the restaurants, the shops, the hotels.

While there are no reported cases of coronavirus in Jefferson County, Lewis said local health officials tell him the virus likely has already taken root in his community.

Lewis projects the city of 15,000 will lose $1.3 million in tax revenues if the shutdown continues, straining a city budget almost cut to the brink. Police and fire services are nearly all that’s left.

“We are at a point where there’s nothing more to cut unless you want to get into essential services,” Lewis said.

In Jacksonville, a city of about 18,000, the Times Square Sewing Complex is closed. “Please honor our Governor’s Shelter at Home,” reads a sign near do-it-yourself instructions for masks and a donation bin.

Times Square Sewing Complex in Jacksonville
Times Square Sewing Complex in Jacksonville may be closed, but it is still doing its bit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neal Earley/Chicago Sun-Times.

“The sewing community are the most big hearted giving people I know,” a yellow sign on the door reads. “I must shelter at home myself and not be open for business.”

At the Illinois’ southern tip, near the Kentucky border, Metropolis was forced to cancel its Superman Celebration, scheduled for June.

For Metropolis, the four-day annual Superman Celebration is sort of like Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parades and Taste of Chicago combined.

A towering statue of the Man of Steel stands in the town, which bills itself as “The Hometown of Superman.”

Every year, comic book fans from all over descend to celebrate their beloved superhero and the city’s connection to his fictional universe.

A couple pose in front of the Superman statue in Downstate Metropolis in an undated photo promoting the town’s Superman festivities.
From metropolistourism.com.

Already, the town of about 6,500 is losing about $15,000 a day in lost tax revenue from closed businesses. Losing the June money-maker is the final blow.

“We’ll feel the pain here in city government because it’s going to turn our budget upside down,” said Metropolis Mayor Billy McDaniel.

“The lost revenue doesn’t mean nothing — it’s just money, it’s just money,” McDaniel said. “The lost jobs is what is devastating to a community, whether it be large or small.”

And across Illinois, health concerns are never far behind the economic worries.

Three months ago, Jonathan Pascal was living in Miami, Florida. The 25-year-old came here to join friends and seek better job prospects and a lower cost of living. Now he is a warehouse worker for Dot Foods living in Beardstown.

But he has not been to work for about a week after developing mild flu-like symptoms. Pascal said he decided to self-isolate out of a worry he might have coronavirus.

But he has no more sick days left.

“Other bills that I have, you know, there’s been a little bit of trouble for me,” he said.