Stateline restaurants struggle with increased pandemic restrictions

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Julia Meyers

Ray’s Family Restaurant owner Nancy Rulovski faces the prospect of closing her restaurant after 22 years.

   No one expected the impact COVID-19 would have on the world. Millions of people have lost jobs, and some industries have practically been destroyed. The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the bar and restaurant industry. 

   Here in Rockford, bars and restaurants face a unique disadvantage because of the city’s stateline location. With Wisconsin so close, and because Wisconsin restaurants and bars are not being held to the same pandemic standards, Rockford area bar and restaurant owners are feeling the pinch of losing customers to our northern neighbors.

  Many restaurants in the state of Illinois had not even survived the first shut down that lasted from March 20 through May 30 when Governor Pritzker put strict limitations on bars and restaurants starting in November, including an indoor dining ban. Many local restaurants and bars were issued citations, and some were even ordered to close for failing to follow the new rules.

   Neli Imeri, the owner of Neli’s Family Restaurant, located in South Beloit, stated that many of his longtime customers are now going into Wisconsin to dine. 

   ¨I drove by a Wisconsin restaurant and saw all of my regular morning customers’ cars in the parking lot,” said Imeri. “I don’t blame them because they go to socialize.”

   Imeri has received seven orders to close that made him seek legal action.  

Julia Meyers

   “It’s super fantastic Wisconsin is open because it makes me busier,” said Rebecca Fernandez, manager at the Red Robin in Janesville, Wisconsin. “We got all kinds of Illinois license plates in my parking lot.” 

   As of today, Wisconsin´s overall positive percentage rate is at 28.7, whereas Illinois currently has only 15.4 positive cases. 

   The majority of the food industry are following the guidelines, but some have chosen not to. Restaurant and bar owners have worked hard to build their businesses, and now over a thousand in the state of Illinois have been forced to close permanently.

   Nancy Rulovski, owner of Ray’s Family Restaurant on West Main Street in Rockton, said that it is not only restaurant owners that are being affected, but the distributors that supply the food as well. She started her restaurant 22 years ago and has served many local customers. 

   “It’s hard for me to close, not just for financial reasons, but for the people that come here every day,” said Rulovski. “For some people, this is their comfort place.”

   Rich Schmidt from the Backyard Grill and Bar, located on North Second Street in Loves Park, stated that the litigation is very confusing.

   “From day to day, from week to week, it’s entirely different. It’s less staff than we have had in the past, and we obviously had to take more measures into account,” said Schmidt. 

   He went on to say drive-through restaurants and pizza places are getting the service that dine-in restaurants would usually get. 

   “Places like Chick fil-A, McDonalds, Beefaroo, they´re still killing it,” Schmidt said. “We have to do better-priced specials to compete.” 

   Every day, Schmidt makes a new Facebook video with the daily specials. As of today, the Backyard Grill and Bar has had five orders to close.   

Clear glass barriers were installed at the Backyard Bar & Grill before before the November indoor dining ban. (Julia Meyers)

      Neighbor’s Bar and Grill on Forest Hills Road in Loves Park has had seven orders to close. Bar Manager Kelly White has been very vocal about the lack of consistency between rules for bars and restaurants versus other retail stores. 

   “Bills keep coming, it’s our livelihood, it’s our bread and butter,” said White. “They want to close us down, but on Black Friday parking lots (of other stores) were packed. So you can’t get COVID from a box store, only bars and restaurants?” 

   Owen Luenenmann, junior, described his experiences working at Panera Bread in Machesney Park during COVID-19. 

   “Interacting with customers is pretty different now, it’s a lot less, it’s kind of sad,” Luenenmann said. “We have to wash our hands every 4 hours, and we constantly have to change our gloves, it’s not even a question.” 

   Panera Bread has not been issued any citations. 

   Joe Sosnowski, State Representative from the 69th district, gave his input on the restrictions on restaurants and bars.

   “Very few outbreaks are connected to restaurants and bars, only 1% positive outbreaks are from restaurants,” Sosnowski said.

   In a chart that Representative Joe Sosnowski posted on his Facebook page, it shows that 69% of the positivity rate is coming from long-term care facilities. 

   “Winnebago County Health Department has left out a large number of cases in their chart,” said Sosnowski. “They are just selecting which cases to report instead of reporting all of them.” 

   Sunrise Family Restaurant, located on Alpine Road in Loves Park, was issued three citations with one order to close from the Winnebago County Health Department. Manager Jennifer Palos has noticed that customers’ tipping has declined, which has led to additional wage decreases for servers.

   “People tipped pretty well (earlier in the pandemic),” said Palos. “But now people don’t normally tip well, if at all. ¨There’re so many young parents, single parents trying to make a living.”

   Palos offered advice for patrons to help local servers keep their jobs.

   “Always remember to tip your server, even if it’s just to-go because it’s the servers getting the to-go orders ready. They’re not getting paid anymore, they’re still living off their tips. Everybody’s hurting right now, but if we keep supporting the local businesses, they’re the ones that matter.”

Julia Meyers