Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series looking at local effects and repercussions of the State of Illinois’ decision and preparation to reopen fully for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly 500 days ago. Known as Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois plan, the restrictions on all indoor and outside crowd gatherings are expected to lift Friday.
One of the people happiest to hear about Illinois reopening Friday is Jeffrey Petersen, co-owner of Chapel in the Pines Wedding & Banquet Center in Sycamore.
Petersen said that 99% of his business is weddings, and Chapel in the Pines has been the location of more than 2,500 weddings in the past 27 years. Chapel in the Pines never closed due to the pandemic, but weddings – and brides’ and grooms’ plans – were constantly adapting to changes in regulations and mitigations.
“Everyone was unsure of what was going to happen, nobody knew what to expect,” Petersen said. “We had several cancelations of bigger weddings, and we issued a lot of refunds to our clients.”
Illinois is on track to enter Phase 5 of Gov. JB Pritzker’s reopening plan Saturday, June 11. Phase 5 allows for full capacity at businesses, restaurants, bars, large-scale events, conventions, amusement parks, zoos and seated spectator events.
Conventions, festivals and large events can return without capacity restrictions. Large gatherings of all sizes can resume across all industry settings, and Phase 5 removes requirements that businesses institute mandatory social distancing in seated venues, as well as daily health screenings of employees and visitors.
The governor’s office said that businesses and venues still are expected to continue to allow for social distancing to the extent possible, especially indoors. Businesses and local municipalities can put in place additional mitigations as they deem appropriate.
After initially postponing their weddings, Petersen said that many couples chose an elopement package with a smaller, more intimate ceremony.
“We had a lot of smaller weddings, from just the couple to up to 20 people, with parents and immediate family,” Peterson said. “Last fall was the biggest fall for small weddings ever.”
At full capacity, Chapel in the Pines can allow up to 150 people to attend.
“People weren’t able to travel last year, and now with things opening up again, people are ready to get out and celebrate,” Peterson said. “Everyone wants the pandemic to be over and for life to get back to normal. They want to dress up, see family and friends and enjoy social events together. I think everyone is ready for dancing and hugging and just being able to celebrate life.”
‘We just have to keep going’
In the past year, Bill McMahon, owner of Faranda’s Banquet Center and the Lincoln Inn in DeKalb sat down with bankruptcy lawyers and financial planners to explore his options amid a rapid and unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic which gutted the restaurant and service industry and halted most large gatherings.
McMahon owns two such businesses, and in a last-ditch effort to save at least one of them, closed up the Lincoln Inn’s Lincoln Highway location and moved it to the same building as Faranda’s, 302 Grove St. They now share a larger kitchen, the dining room has expanded into the banquet center, and he’s remained afloat.
“I’m a little tired,” McMahon said with a chuckle. “This past year has been problem after problem. I’m ready for it to be done.”
In a given ‘normal’ year, McMahon’s banquet center sets up for an event nearly three out of four weekends per month, all year round, whether its weddings, rehearsal dinners, corporate events, brunches or funeral gatherings. In 2020, he was lucky if there was something once per month, he said, though state public health restrictions barred indoor gatherings of more than 10 people for a large portion of the year, and around the holidays during the fall virus surge especially.
McMahon’s business had been the subject of brief local controversy in October of 2020, after former DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith was photographed gathering for what he said was a weekly coffee breakfast with friends indoors at Faranda’s. The photo was posted to social media, and Smith later said he believed McMahon was “entitled to do it” as a banquet center, a fact later confirmed by local public health officials who agreed the indoor dining guidance provided by the state for banquet centers was unclear. McMahon said he believed banquet centers, which included dining reservations, were not included in the indoor dining ban. The state guidance later was clarified to include such language, although by that point McMahon already had voluntarily reclosed Faranda’s dining room.
Although McMahon said the newly named Lincoln Inn at Faranda’s seems to bustle these days, he expects Faranda’s Banquet Center event calendar will take a year or more to recover from the restriction of the past year.
“What was really scary for me, is I usually talk to brides a year, two years out,” McMahon said of the rampant cancelations or scaled-down versions of nuptials impacted by 2020. “When I moved Lincoln Inn over here, I was thinking, being realistic, that one of these businesses is not going to survive.”
He said that it partly has to do with the fact that Faranda’s dining room now offers 14,000 square feet to separate diners for both safety and peace of mind, since he believes diners might still feel some hesitancy to go out to eat.
Now, when customers come in, he says he’s heard them say it looks like business is “doing well.”
“I’m really honest with people, I tell them we are at 55% of my pre-COVID numbers at the business as a whole,” McMahon said. “The restaurant side is back at more than it used to be, because we have new space and capacity. Banquets is still off. Who knows how long it will take to get back.”
When McMahon spoke to the Daily Chronicle on Wednesday, he was preparing for a lunch group from a local Kiwanis group to use the banquet hall. He expressed both excitement and some wariness at the opportunity he and other local business owners will have come Friday to begin hosting gatherings without capacity limits for the first time in more than 450 days.
“I’m actually scared, because we don’t have staff,” McMahon said, echoing a sentiment shared nationwide by owners in retail and service industry positions. “We are so short. At my peak, we probably had 50 employees between both businesses. We’re down to about 16 or 17.”
Faranda’s hosted a funeral lunch this week, and “fortunately, there are a lot of McMahons [to work],” he said with a laugh. In fact, the luncheon was staffed by no fewer than eight family members.
“You can only do that so long,” McMahon said. “I am nervous about staffing. People have left the hospitality industry. We are not open on Mondays now. I think it’s a supply and demand thing. If [we] want to get staff here, we’re going to have to go up on our wages.”
For a wedding of 250 guests (a frequent occurrence before the chaos), McMahon said he’d need a staff of at least 20 people. Now he expects about eight to handle it, with him taking the lead as event planner and his bookkeeper acting as the wedding coordinator.
“My servers you see serving you dinner, and I have a lot of young kids working here now, after the dinner is served, we go in the back of the house and do dishes.”
When prompted about his apparent optimism now in June 2021 – nearly 18 months after the virus arrived and since killed 120 people in DeKalb County and infected more than 10,000 – McMahon gave a slight chuckle.
“We don’t have a choice,” he said. “We just have to keep going. It’s been a long year. I’ve looked at pulling all my retirement money. I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I’m going to smile wherever it is.”
Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.