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Local

'We can't catch a break': Restaurant owners react to Region 1 COVID-19 mitigations ahead of Saturday

Ammar Mahmood, the owner of Jamrah Middle Eastern Cuisine restaurants in DeKalb and Sycamore, was painting, cleaning and sanitizing his DeKalb restaurant Tuesday afternoon when he heard about Region 1 COVID-19 mitigations which will prohibit patrons from dining inside beginning Saturday.

Jamrah’s DeKalb restaurant has been closed since March 16 and Mahmood planned on re-opening the restaurant at 209 E. Lincoln Highway next week. His Sycamore location, 2672 DeKalb Ave. has remained open throughout the pandemic.

“Everyone here was so excited and we were gearing up to open,” Mahmood said. “This is devastating, and it seems like we can’t catch a break. This news was not welcome at all. … As a small business, we rely on foot traffic, walk-ins, deliveries and carry-outs. Now we’re not really sure what will happen with the DeKalb store.”

On Tuesday, Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health announced COVID-19 resurgence mitigations will be implemented in Region 1 beginning Saturday, with indoor dining at bars and restaurants prohibited, gatherings of 25 or more banned and dining and bar businesses closed 11 p.m.

In order to reopen indoor dining service, the positivity rate in the region would need to drop considerably. If the positivity rate averages less than or equal to 6.5% for three consecutive days, Region 1 will return to Phase 4 mitigations under the Restore Illinois Plan. If the positivity rate averages between 6.5% and 8%, the new mitigations will remain in place and unchanged. If the positivity rate averages greater than or equal to 8% after 14 days, more stringent mitigations can be applied to further reduce spread of the virus, according to the IDPH announcement.

When Bill McMahon, the owner of The Lincoln Inn and Faranda’s in DeKalb, heard about the new mitigations, he was shocked and in disbelief.

“It’s absolutely devastating,” McMahon said. “It’s the final blow for a lot of small businesses. We’re out of money, we’re out of energy, we’re out of staff. It’s basically bankruptcy for a lot of restaurants. … It’s disheartening, and I’m disappointed in the leadership. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, a financial rollercoaster.”

Region 1 of Illinois includes Boone, Carroll, DeKalb, Jo Daviess, Lee, Ogle, Stephenson, Whiteside and Winnebago counties.

According to IDPH, Winnebago County has a rolling seven-day positivity rate of 9.3. Whiteside County has 7.5%, Ogle County 6.9%, Lee County 9.4% and DeKalb County 7.4%.

McMahon said he does not agree with closing down DeKalb County restaurants and bars because of a higher COVID-19 infection rate in nearby counties.

“Closing our area is not right because it is safe to eat out here,” he said. “It’s every bit as safe to eat out this Sunday as it was last Sunday. We’ve been following all protocols, wearing masks and keeping everything safe and clean.”

According to the mitigation measures, bars and restaurants will not be able to have indoor dining or bar service and all outdoor dining must close at 11 p.m. Reservations will be required for each party. For meetings, social events and gatherings, there will be a limit to the lesser of 25 guests or 25% of overall room capacity.

Angelo Tsiagalis, an owner of the Sycamore Parkway Restaurant, said that his restaurant has already made many changes: it was closed for three months at the start of the pandemic, opened to outdoor seating only and then to 50% capacity indoors.

“Hearing [the governor’s mandate] was a surprise because we were all hoping that the coronavirus would fade away and we’d be allowed to open more,” Tsiagalis said.

The Sycamore Parkway Restaurant will continue to have carry-outs, outdoor dining at its patio and delivery within six miles.

“Ever since the pandemic, the restaurant has been like a ghost town at times, it’s just not the same,” waitress and hostess Lindsay Hartwell said. “There’s been a huge decline, and customers have been scarce since March.”

Jamrah Middle Eastern Cuisine has outdoor seating at its Sycamore location, but owner Mahmood doesn’t know how appealing sitting outside will be with cooler fall weather approaching.

“Even with an outdoor seating area, temperatures are getting low, and I don’t know who would want to sit outside and eat in 40-degree weather,” Mahmood said. “It’s really sad for our customers, it’s sad for our employees. I don’t know what to do, to tell you the truth.”

The Junction Eating Place in DeKalb has added outdoor seating in front of its restaurant to compensate for the limited capacity inside.

“We’ll add more tables to our outdoor dining, but our to-go orders picked up tremendously,” waitress and hostess Melissa Clack said. “But the weather is getting colder. It’s all a little frustrating and so unfortunate.”

Since March 16, The Lincoln Inn has been closed and the restaurant has been operating out of Faranda’s. Owner McMahon said that last year, Faranda’s had weddings booked in its banquet hall every weekend of October. This October, Faranda's doesn’t have any scheduled.

“It’s very important to support local businesses if you want them to survive,” McMahon said. “We need your help.”

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