McHenry County chambers hope rising gas prices indicate strong tourism season ahead as COVID-19 restrictions ease

Optimism for surge in road trips as supply drives fuel costs

Gasoline prices are on the rise in northern Illinois, like they normally are as summer months approach, and McHenry County business leaders are hopeful that is indicative of a strong tourism season ahead after fuel costs fell in the spring last year when COVID-19 cut demand at the pump worldwide.

Business organizations throughout the state are expressing optimism a surge in road trips is imminent as vaccinations against the virus ramp up across the country and restrictions on gathering ease after more than a year of unprecedented public health rules to battle the pandemic.

“People are going to want to get out on the road. Everyone has been home. People postponed their vacations last year. Hopefully, they have some money they put aside that they can go do their travel,” said Crystal Musgrove, executive director of the Harvard Chamber of Commerce. “Businesses like Harvard’s, we’re trying to make up a whole lost year in a year. Once everything starts opening, you don’t want to be the last one to do those things, the last one to take a vacation.”

While the increase in demand for gas in recent weeks can be partially attributed to the vaccination campaign picking up pace and people growing more comfortable traveling, low supply also is driving prices at the pump, Illinois Fuel and Retail Association CEO Josh Sharpe said.

Oil extractors and refiners work to bring back jobs and grow their output after shedding employees and slowing operations last year when the pandemic plummeted oil prices into negative territory, he said.

Another factor behind the annual increase in gas prices during the spring time is the switch from winter mixes of gasoline made by refiners to summer mixes; the differing concoctions are meant to limit evaporation of fuel and associated pollution.

Sharpe estimated it could be about six to eight months until the nation’s oil refining capacity is fully restored, at which point he expects gas prices to plateau and perhaps again fall.

“I definitely think the more vaccine you get into people’s arms, the more comfortable they’re going to be traveling,” Sharpe said. “Driving is going to be the preferred method because people feel it’s safer. They want to continue to social distance. They don’t want to cram into an airport. It will be a really big summer driving season, I think. Maybe not as big as 2018 or 2019, but still a good one.”

Average Illinois gas prices bottomed out at about $1.70 per gallon in April 2020 as the pandemic gained steam, data from GasBuddy.com shows, and in the past two weeks they’ve hovered between $3 and $3.16 a gallon, while Chicago alone has seen prices approach $3.32 a gallon.

The cheapest gas in McHenry County as of Monday, at $2.95 a gallon for regular grade car fuel, was offered by a Citgo store on Route 120 in Lakemoor, GasBuddy.com showed. Many other refueling stations in the county are selling gas for $2.99 a gallon, the next lowest price, the website reported.

“I’m sure people will definitely be on the road a lot more than they were last year. We’re hoping everyone gets vaccinated, and we’re able to get out and about a lot more,” said Larry Cornett, executive director of the Huntley Area Chamber of Commerce. “Some states are still having movement [with COVID-19 cases] that we don’t like, so we really have to be careful still.”

But rising gas prices are worrisome to workers in certain segments of the economy.

“Paying more at the pump is problematic for us as we head into the summer months, particularly for retail. The more you limit people’s discretionary income, the less they can spend in stores,” said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

While there may be pent up demand to hit the road and see family and friends, Karr suggested people may limit the distance of their trips if gas prices go too much higher.

“Does somebody go from Joliet to McHenry County? What about the people coming from New Jersey to Illinois? Is that not going to happen? That’s the fear,” Karr said.

Hesitancy to take longer trips because of gas prices or otherwise may also give McHenry County businesses a boost this summer because the area is close to the metro areas of Chicago, Rockford and Milwaukee, said Jaki Berggren, executive director of Visit McHenry County.

“Sometimes that benefits McHenry County because Chicago is a one-tank trip. You feel like you’ve gone somewhere when you come to McHenry County. A lot of people are looking for things to do outdoors because of COVID-19. It could actually be a place people consider coming because of that,” Berggren said.

She added the area’s accessibility via commuter trains also gives people a transit alternative to coughing up extra cash for pricey gas.

Karr predicted people would be more likely to think twice about hitting the road for getaways if gas prices neared $3.75 per gallon.

“If you get to $3.75, you start to worry a lot more,” Karr said. “We hope it’s manageable. We have a cautious eye is what I would say right now. We need to see what the consumer will do when school gets out and if they will travel.”

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry covers local government, business, K-12 education and all other aspects of life in McHenry County, in particular in the communities of Woodstock, McHenry, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and Johnsburg.