Downstate pockets spared by COVID-19 are shrinking — and pain is growing

A few corners of rural Illinois remain as the final holdouts against the virus, so far seeing no reported cases. But that does not mean they have been spared the fears, anxiety and economic hardship.

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McLeansboro City Hall in Hamilton County, one of the few Illinois counties with no COVID-19 cases.

McLeansboro City Hall in Hamilton County, one of the few Illinois counties with no COVID-19 cases.

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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 in Hamilton County, which saw its first case of the coronavirus on Saturday.

Up until then, it was one of the few places in the state without a single reported case of the coronavirus.

Edgar County in eastern Illinois still has seen no cases.Beds lie empty in the hospital that serves it and nine other counties.

But while COVID-19 has yet to reach Edgar County, and it just touched Hamilton County — the fears, anxiety and economic hardship from the virus have already taken root.

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 seven of the state’s 102 counties reported no COVID-19 infections as of Monday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Scattered across central and southern portions of the state, they are Putnam, Brown, Edgar, Scott, Edwards, Hardin and Pope counties.

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.

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.

”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,” saidLueke, owner and operator of Salon 6.

Dale E. Biggerstaff, an alderman from McLeansboro, said he does not understand why Pritzker’s stay-at-home order allows liquor stores to remain open as “essential” businesses, 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.

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.

The rules everyone must follow during the pandemic are the same for Chicago, with its 13,013 reported cases of coronavirus as of Monday, as they are for the counties with zero cases.

Of course, the number of Illinois counties that are COVID-19 free is shrinking by the day.

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 cases Friday. Cass County in central Illinois and far southern White County reported their first cases on Monday.

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

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, and that has hurt the demand for corn, which is used to make ethanol.

Henderson County Board Chairman Brad Flatt with four of his grandchildren.

Henderson County Board Chairman Brad Flatt, holding his granddaughter Addison, as his grandsons, Peyton (top), Maddox (middle) and Grant stand behind him.

Provided photo.

“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, Flatt said he thinks the harsh measures to stave off the virus are necessary even with so few reported cases in his tiny town.

“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 doesn’t mean locals aren’t shooting nervous looks over their shoulders.

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.

Some health officials believe the state-wide precautions are the reason they have seen few or no cases.

“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 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to convert McCormick Place into a makeshift hospital, in Mattoon’s Sarah Bush Lincoln Hospital the beds are empty.

The hospital is in Coles County, which had 16 COVID-19 cases as of Monday, 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.

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

Nurses and other staff from Sarah Bush Lincoln Hospital use their own sewing machines and other equipment to make protective masks out of sterile wrap material.

Nurses and other staff from Sarah Bush Lincoln Hospital use their own sewing machines and other equipment to make protective masks out of sterile wrap material. Left to right, Leigh Cheney, Kandy Donahue, Janet Burner, Wendy Specker, Sterile Processing Manager Sheri Oakley and Teresa Russell.

Provided photo.

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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