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
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.