'It's going to be a slow process': Ready or not, Illinois is reopening on Friday
While the governor, most public health officials and millions of customers are ready for Illinois businesses and other venues to fully reopen Friday, that's not exactly the case for many of those business owners and venue operators.
"It's not going to be a flip of the switch," said Paul Slagle, general manager of the Libertyville bar and restaurant Firkin. "It's going to be a slow process."
Slagle doesn't even expect to have the eatery set up for full capacity until Monday at the earliest because reconfiguring the seating layout would disrupt diners and staff members during the busy weekend. But even if the restaurant could handle more customers, he's got a staffing issue that has become universal during the pandemic.
"It's basically like opening the business from scratch," he said, "because we're going to have to find people to work, which is a national problem."
Restaurants, offices, entertainment venues and other businesses no longer have to limit capacity beginning Friday because the state's COVID-19 infection metrics have steadily declined for more than a month now. New cases of the disease and hospitalizations from the virus are at levels that don't threaten to overwhelm the state's health care system, while more and more residents are getting vaccinated, public health officials said.
After more than a year of dealing with various capacity limitations, which often varied from one municipality to the next, some Illinois business owners remain leery about making a massive switch in their operating mode while the virus remains a threat.
"There's more jobs than we can handle right now, honestly," said Dominick Scafidi, marketing consultant for Naperville-based My Chef Catering. "While we're extremely busy on the corporate and social side of things now, and it appears it will remain that way, you still hope that something doesn't happen to make the restrictions come back."
Scafidi said the catering business has seen a double whammy of staffing issues during the pandemic. Most companies like My Chef Catering rely on high school and college students to work the busy summer events season, but many in that age group haven't been vaccinated yet because they were among the last to be given access to the vaccine. Additionally, some older and experienced workers aren't coming back because they remain worried they are more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
And, vaccination requirements can become a tricky tightrope for many employers to walk, human resource experts said. There is no federal or state mandate to get vaccinated. There's not even consistent messaging from the government on mask wearing. However, customers have to abide by the masking rules of the business they are patronizing. And while private companies can make vaccination a requirement of the job, few have.
"It's a precarious landscape we have to work through with the masking policies and how it pertains to fully vaccinated and unvaccinated employees, probably decisions that shouldn't be rushed," said Laura Miller, director of the Illinois Society for Human Resource Management. "A lot of this now is flying by the seat of your pants, so good planning and what makes sense to your business is critical."
Business owners will also have to spend a considerable amount of time on training in the coming months as many of the open positions needed to operate at full capacity are filled by workers who are new to the industry.
"Do you know someone?" joked Sandie Gilmer, recreation superintendent at Fox Valley Park District in Aurora. "We need all kinds of aquatic staff, but we're still in need of about 20 to 30 lifeguards and swim instructors."
The district's two outdoor pool sites -- Phillips Park Family Aquatic Center and Splash Country Water Park -- will operate at full capacity Saturday, but that requires extra effort by seasonal workers and shifting district resources to meet those demands.
There's also a supply issue needed to meet the demand in the theater industry as the state reopens, but specifically staffing.
Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas based in Downers Grove and president of the National Association of Theatre Owners of Illinois, said a big issue they face is the lack of new movies available to the increased audience. But he said he expects that to rectify itself in a short amount of time.
"Since it's not just Illinois, but the whole country reopening, they're releasing more movies to help rebuild the audiences," Johnson said. "We're extremely excited to have reached this point."
And that's the sentiment from many business owners who will now be allowed to again operate at full capacity -- it's just that the excitement is tempered by their experiences of the past year.
"I'm optimistic that people will come back and I look forward to seeing people come in and fill up the bar again," Slagle said. "But our business got taken away from us, and it's going to take years to recover."