In down­state Scott County, first di­ag­nosed case of COVID has changed lit­tle

Illi­nois’ last hold­out against the virus had its first case di­ag­nosed last week, but many res­i­dents are more wor­ried about re­viv­ing their busi­nesses

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY NEAL EARLEY, STAFF REPORTER near­ley@sun­ | @neal_ear­ley

WINCH­ESTER, Ill. — To the de­gree that small, ru­ral Scott County was known for any­thing to the rest of the state, it was for be­ing the only Illi­nois county with­out a sin­gle case of COVID-19.

A few weeks ago, one guy even made the trip down from the Chicago area just to visit the last cor­ner of Illi­nois that had been spared.

“He went and got his hair cut at the bar­ber­shop and walked around town,” said Steve Granger, who owns the bowl­ing al­ley in the town of Winch­ester.

Scott County lost that dis­tinc­tion last week, when a 66-year-old woman was di­ag­nosed with the virus and was re­ported to be re­cov­er­ing at her home.

But even with the news, lit­tle has changed in the cen­tral Illi­nois county of 4,951.

“Well every­body was dis­ap­pointed be­cause we kind of liked be­ing the only county that didn’t have a case, a con­firmed case,” said Rex McIn­tire, mayor of Winch­ester, the 1,458-pop­u­la­tion county seat. “But we kind of also knew it was just a mat­ter of time, so no shock or any­thing.”

In fact, if any­thing has changed, it’s in the di­rec­tion of re­open­ing, as it is in most of the rest of Illi­nois.

Winch­ester’s weekly sum­mer con­cert on the square, which had been can­celed be­cause of the coro­n­avirus, is sched­uled to re­sume on Thurs­day. The farm­ers mar­ket is open again, and some church ser­vices are once again be­ing held in­doors.

Lo­cated about 250 miles south­west of Chicago, Scott County held the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the only one of Illi­nois’ 102 coun­ties with­out a con­firmed case of coro­n­avirus for about a month. Edgar County — the state’s other hold­out — picked up its first case in late May. That east-cen­tral Illi­nois county is now up to 16 cases but still has re­ported no deaths from the virus.

In Scott County, many res­i­dents be­lieve their area has been spared as long as it has largely be­cause it is so scarcely pop­u­lated and dis­tant from the Chicago area, the cen­ter of COVID in Illi­nois.

Some are still wor­ried about the coro­n­avirus but be­lieve they have es­caped the worst of the pan­demic. At­ti­tudes to­ward COVID-19 are a mix of con­cern and skep­ti­cism, as they are across the na­tion.

Life in Scott County has not changed that much since county pub­lic health of­fi­cials an­nounced its first case Thurs­day, res­i­dents said.

Like so many other parts of Illi­nois, the county is ea­ger to re­turn to nor­malcy, McIn­tire said.

But some restau­rant own­ers say they’re not see­ing a re­turn to that nor­malcy. In Winch­ester, many towns­peo­ple are still wary of re­turn­ing to in­door din­ing.

At the Pitt Stop, a restau­rant along the main square in Winch­ester, business re­mains slow. Owner Jeff Pittman at­tributes it to coro­n­avirus con­cerns and sum­mer heat keep­ing cus­tomers away.

Pittman, who serves as an al­der­man in Winch­ester, said he mostly closed his restau­rant to in­door seat­ing. He was the only one work­ing there Mon­day night.

Friends coming in to chat keep him busier than cus­tomers do th­ese days.

“I prob­a­bly do about a fourth of what I usu­ally do,” Pittman said. “Yeah, it’s not very good. But with­out the staff and stuff, I’m still mak­ing it, but it’s pretty tough.”

Be­ing the last county to have a re­ported case of coro­n­avirus has brought some at­ten­tion from the rest of the state.

A few weeks ago, a vis­i­tor from the Chicago sub­urbs showed up at Winch­ester Bowl, a pop­u­lar restau­rant and bowl­ing al­ley in town

“He was from the Chicago area, and he was down here to see us be­cause we didn’t have any cases yet,” Granger told a reporter.

But even back then, business was slow and has yet to pick up, lim­ited to carry-out food or­ders. Few are bowl­ing. Around happy hour on Mon­day, Granger had just one cus­tomer.

Granger was able to get a fed­eral Pay­check Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram loan to keep his business open. “But we’re still pay­ing our bills,” he said.

“Business since we went back to Phase 4 has been bet­ter, but we’re still not back to where it was be­fore the coro­n­avirus thing,” Granger said. “But it’s re­turn­ing. Peo­ple are still afraid, I think, to dine in. They still get food to go.”

Steve Shire­man, the health ad­min­is­tra­tor for Scott County, said he doesn’t know why the area has been spared a ma­jor out­break.

While Chicago re­mains the epi­cen­ter of the pan­demic in Illi­nois, some down­state coun­ties have also been hit hard by the virus. Nearby Cass County has 136 pos­i­tive cases and seven re­ported deaths from COVID-19, and border­ing Mor­gan County — where many in Scott County work or get med­i­cal treat­ment, has 132 pos­i­tive cases and three re­ported deaths from the virus.

“Bot­tom line is, we’ve been pretty lucky — so far — and I hope it con­tin­ues,” Shire­man said.


Steve Granger (above), owner of Winch­ester Bowl (left), a pop­u­lar restau­rant and bowl­ing al­ley. “Business since we went back to Phase 4 has been bet­ter, but we’re still not back to where it was be­fore the coro­n­avirus thing.”

Rex McIn­tire, mayor of Winch­ester, in June.

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