As the COVID-19 pandemic first began to unfold in mid-March, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker barred restaurants and bars from serving sit-down customers for at least two weeks.
The ban was announced on Sunday, March 16, and went into effect at the end of the business day on Monday, March 17, leaving many local restaurants and bars scrambling to figure out what happens next.
All establishments were allowed to serve food throughout the closure, but only through drive-thru or pick-up service, but for some restaurants it’s simply not enough.
“I have a dine-in restaurant with a sit-down experience. You can’t put that in a box,” said Kara Steffens of Litchfield, owner of both Maverick Steaks and Spirits and The Ariston Cafe. “We are down 85 percent in both volume and cash.”
Steffens added that initially, they felt like they could weather that two-week storm, even if it would be tough.
“I thought if we could do $500 to $1,000 a week in carry-out service that we could break even,” she said. “But that’s not what happened.”
And now, restaurants all over the state of Illinois have been closed for more than two months, with little chance to open for dine-in service anytime soon.
“It’s devastating,” said Steffens. “It took me 30 days in April to do the same amount of business we typically do in five days.”
To help meet the needs of small business owners, the Small Business Administration of the federal government quickly offered PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans.
PPP loans are forgivable if all employees are kept on the payroll and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.
Steffens is among many county business owners who have applied for a PPP loan, but the eight-week window for forgiveness is nearly up, and without being open, she can’t spend down the entirety of the loan.
“Which means if I don’t spend it all that I have to give it back or pay it back,” she said. “It puts us in a bad situation. That money was supposed to be used to help get us back on our feet.”
Steffens said that by offering only carry-out service from both sit-down restaurants, she doesn’t need most of the 80 employees she keeps on staff under normal circumstances. She has kept a couple of employees, but the most hours she has been able to offer is 15 a week, as she doesn’t need dishwashers or servers or even salad bar prep employees. Most of those employees not working for her right now are drawing unemployment.
“I can’t pay people for not working, and there’s literally nothing to do right now,” she said.
Steffens is working hard to contact her local and federal officials to encourage them to extend the eight-week period for small businesses to spend down the loan.
“I know I’m not alone,” she said. “But we have no idea when we will be able to open back up, and the time frame for these loans ends on June 1.”
Ken Elmore of First National Bank in Litchfield said his bank has helped more than 70 local businesses with these PPP loans.
“Early on it was trying for everyone, the government, banks, businesses, because it was brand new,” said Elmore. But we all worked through the process together because it was an opportunity to help keep some of these businesses afloat.”
Elmore feels like it would help all small businesses if the government would allow a 12 to 16-week window to spend down the loan.
United States Representative Rodney Davis said he has heard from both Steffens and Elmore and is working with the Small Business Administration and the Treasurer’s office to help local businesses.
“My heart breaks for these small business owners and restauranteurs,” Davis said. “This is a pandemic. It’s unprecedented.”
He said that initially the PPP loan was designed to be a bridge for local businesses for what they thought would be an eight-week period. The legislation was passed very quickly to give those business owners the help they needed at the time.
“It was created for eight weeks and we fully expected to beat this virus in eight weeks,” Davis said. “It was passed quickly and businesses got historically fast access to that money. But that means that problems have arisen that have to be solved on the fly, and this is one of those problems.”
Davis thinks they need a more reasonable approach and said he will continue to be a voice for downstate businesses.
United States Senator Dick Durbin has also heard from Steffens, Elmore and other local business owners.
“This week, Congressional Democrats introduced our proposal for the next coronavirus economic stimulus package, which includes a plan to allow Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) recipients to spend the funds over a course of time longer than the current eight week mandate,” Durbin said. “The CARES Act and the PPP were significant investments in our small businesses, but we can’t stop now. Congress must provide additional support, as well as oversight and transparency, to existing programs like PPP to help our communities and small businesses during this unprecedented time.”
In the meantime, Steffens said she has been working with her accountant on whether or not it’s feasible to keep their doors open for carry-out business before restaurants are allowed to open again. She’s also grateful to those who continue to patronize local businesses.
“So many customers have thanked us for staying open,” she said. “We live in a small, small community. People are trying to spread the wealth, and they are trying to help us.”
She and Elmore also encourage local residents to reach out to their legislators and let them know about extending the PPP loan window.
“At the end of the day, we want to keep these businesses afloat,” Elmore said. “They are big supporters of our communities, and we need to do our darndest to help them. If we don’t, who will?”