EAST DUBUQUE, Ill. — For Connie Ahlers, the past week has provided a humbling lesson on just how quickly things can change.
One week ago today, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered that all bars and restaurants in the state close from midnight on March 16 through March 30. Similar decrees have subsequently been ordered in Wisconsin and Iowa, resulting in a prolonged closure for eateries, casinos, theaters and other venues where large groups gather.
The order dealt a major blow to business throughout the tri-state area, including Mulgrew’s Tavern in East Dubuque, where Ahlers is employed.
Ahlers worked just 27 hours this week, down from her typical 40. Meanwhile, the absence of bar and dine-in customers means she is not receiving tips, a reality that further affects her income.
“This is going to be a rough patch. That is for sure,” said Ahlers. “I just keep reminding myself of the bigger picture. I know that now is a time we all have to come together.”
Ahlers is acutely aware that she has actually been one of the lucky ones. At Mulgrew’s Tavern, many of the employees have been informed there simply aren’t any hours available for them.
The rapid closure of businesses over the past week has left thousands of local residents without jobs. Many of those people are among the most financially vulnerable in the tri-state area.
Area economic leaders, deluged with questions from workers and business owners alike, have struggled to present answers as state and federal leaders continue to float ambitious proposals, but fail to solidify tangible solutions.
Restaurant and bar owners have abruptly concocted contingency plans to stay afloat at a time when dine-in customers are prohibited.
At Mulgrew’s Tavern, staffers are focused on filling carry-out orders. But owner Dalene Temperley acknowledged this only brings in a fraction of the typical revenue.
“Of course we know the reasons why this is happening,” she said. “But this is actually pretty devastating for our business.”
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds declared a “public health disaster emergency” on Tuesday and ordered the closure of the state’s bars and dine-in services at restaurants. Theaters and casinos also were mandated to close for the remainder of the month under the decree.
Data provided by Greater Dubuque Development Corp. shows that more than 5,000 Dubuque County jobs are tied to businesses that have experienced major disruptions or outright shutdowns due to COVID-19. These operations include bars, restaurants, hotels and casinos.
GDDC Vice President of Workforce Solutions Kristin Dietzel acknowledged the impact of these shutdowns.
“Our hospitality, restaurant and entertainment industry are critical components of our economy,” she said. “This is having a major impact on that industry and it is of critical importance that we support these business however we can.”
Prior to the spread of COVID-19, associated jobs were on a steady, upward trajectory in Dubuque County.
In 2019, restaurants employed 3,249 workers in Dubuque County, up from 3,152 at the outset of the decade. The number of bartenders, meanwhile, increased by more than 15% over the previous decade.
Dietzel said employees in these industries are mostly women and tend to be a bit younger than those working in other industries. These positions also tend to have lower wages.
“This is a population that was already vulnerable and challenged financially,” Dietzel said. “This is adding extra strain for these individuals and for the social services network.”
Multiple attempts over a period of several days to obtain specific information from local and state Iowa Workforce Development leaders about jobless claims for this story were not successful.
A series of COVID-19 questions and answers on the IWD website confirms that workers are eligible for unemployment benefits if they are laid off or working reduced hours due to impacts of the coronavirus.
WAIT AND SEE
Tom Kunnert, owner of Pickle Barrell Subs in Dubuque, said he has 15 employees between the eatery’s two locations.
“We’ve had to cut back on the hours and we’re basically splitting those hours so everyone is still getting some work,” he said. “We hope we can keep everybody, but sales are dropping a little bit every day.”
In Illinois and Iowa, initial orders to close eateries to dine-in customers suggested that the mandates would be lifted by the end of the month.
Begrudgingly, restaurant owners and workers are accepting that such a prompt return to normalcy is unlikely, if not completely impossible.
Epidemiologists suggest that current practices of social distancing must continue for multiple months in order to be effective. Even White House officials have acknowledge that COVID-19 could disrupt the economy for as long as 12 or 18 months.
Temperley, of Mulgrew’s Tavern, has accepted the fact that things won’t return to normal at the end of March.
“(The state) initially said two weeks, but I expect it will go on a lot longer,” she said. “I don’t expect it to end any time soon.”
Sadly, this reality might not be sinking in with those who it affects the most.
Dietzel, of GDDC, noted that many restaurant workers appear to be playing the waiting game rather than applying for unemployment benefits or seeking new work.
“Our impression is that many of them are hoping their place of work reopens soon and brings them back,” she said.
Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County (Wis.) Economic Development Corp., said the sudden financial hardship facing business owners and employees has prompted a flood of phone calls from county residents seeking clarity and guidance.
Unfortunately, he has little to offer. Brisbois noted that countless aid and stimulus packages have been floated, but largely have failed to come to fruition.
“On the state and federal level, we are hearing a lot of talk and not seeing a lot of action,” he said. “It has been very confusing to be on the receiving end of it.”
The biggest uncertainty, however, remains the duration of the massive business disruption.
On this topic, Brisbois is similarly at a loss.
“The huge unknown is the timeline,” he said. “How long will they be closed and how long will they be limited? I have to tell them I don’t know. I am not sure if anybody knows the answer to that question.”