McHenry County restaurants, businesses say return of video gambling is a step in right direction

‘Businesses really need the gaming now as another source of fallback revenue,’ one Fox River Grove restaurant owner says

With indoor gaming reopening earlier this week after the state lifted some COVID-19 restrictions in McHenry and Lake counties, local business owners said it’s a sign things are moving in the right direction, though they are remaining cautious as the pandemic continues.

Lucky Penny’s, a bar and deli in Cary that offers video gambling, was busy Tuesday, the day after the video gambling restrictions were lessened, said Dhara Patel, who owns the establishment, with her husband, Nik.

When Patel posted on social media that gambling was back on, she got more than 50 calls asking about it. Even before she officially opened Lucky Penny’s for the day, five people were waiting by the entrance to get in.

“People were so happy because of the gaming,” Patel said. “They want to be back to normal.”

But it’s not just state-mandated restrictions that affect business, Patel said.

People don’t have money to spend because of job losses they suffered during the pandemic, she said, and fewer people want to go out because they don’t want to get infected.

“It’s hard,” she said.

Sherry Mehlman, owner of Fox River Grove’s Dead End Bar and Grill, was happy to see some regulars come back with the return of video gambling.

However, she said she’ll only be truly relieved when the pandemic is over.

“It’s only been a couple days, so to me, I don’t set my mind on anything,” Mehlman said.

After the launch of a new statewide staffing program aimed at helping hospitals manage surges in patient volumes, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced Region 9, which is composed of McHenry and Lake counties, could move to Tier 2 of the state’s COVID-19 mitigation measures, meaning indoor gambling, casinos and cultural institutions can now reopen.

These moves don’t come without some restrictions, though. Video game machines can only operate from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., masks have to be worn at all times inside video gambling areas, and crowds around the machines are prohibited.

Mehlman said video gambling brings Dead End Bar and Grill a decent amount of business, but most of their revenue comes from their food. Dead End typically put its gambling revenue toward repairs and its liquor license.

During the time when indoor gambling was prohibited, Mehlman said, she was careful with money and didn’t do any projects or improvements to the restaurant.

Mehlman still doesn’t know if she will make any renovations now that gaming is back as the year has already been so unpredictable.

“To me, it’s like, OK, when when are we going to get shut down again?” Mehlman said. “I believe businesses really need the gaming now as another source of fallback revenue.”

Tim Shabani, owner of Sofie’s Whiskey & Wine in Woodstock, said with the pandemic, “every day could be a different day,” though having video gaming is definitely better than not having it.

Customers also happy to see another step toward mitigations being lifted, he said.

“I would hope and anticipate that in the coming days or weeks that we’ll get to another phase or tier,” Shabani said.

To move to Tier 1, which would mean the return of indoor dining, Region 9 would need to see its positivity rate drop below 8% and stay there for three consecutive days. The region currently meets the other two benchmarks.

Holzlager Breweing Company in Woodstock installed its gambling machines Oct. 1, said Mario Cortez, one of its owners. Six weeks later, it had to shut them down.

“We’re certainly encouraged by the fact that we have one other source of possible income that, hopefully, can help with all of the challenges that we’ve had in trying to navigate through a pandemic,” he said.

Cortez is hopeful that this is the first stage of other restrictions being reduced.

“Right now, I’m feeling pretty optimistic,” Cortez said. He checks the positivity rate and other COVID-19 metrics from the state daily. “It looks like we’re trending in the right direction.”

However, for this to happen, people need to keep taking precautions, such as wearing a face mask, Cortez said.

“It’s been a year,” Cortez said. “I don’t know what normal is going to be moving forward. But certainly, people are looking forward to trying to get back to what their regular life was like.”

Cassie Buchman

I cover Crystal Lake, Algonquin, Cary, Fox River Grove, Prairie Grove and Oakwood Hills for the Northwest Herald.