Business owners in the Sauk Valley are preparing for tighter restrictions that will go into effect across the state Friday.
For Michelle Martinez-Frank, the people who walk through the doors of Ellie's Gaming Cafe in Sterling aren't just customers. They are friends and neighbors.
The gaming cafe has stood on Fourth Street in Sterling for three years, offering folks a chance to try their luck on one of the six machines.
Since the pandemic began, the staff at Ellie's has made a point of trying to play it safe with the virus, asking customers to wear masks and not gather too close together.
"I want it to be a safe environment for them," Martinez-Frank said. "So we have done everything we can to make it safe. We're hoping we can make it through until there was something available to everyone, but as the numbers kept rising and rising over the last few weeks, we realized that was not going to happen in our world."
Tier 3 mitigations, announced Tuesday by Gov. JB Pritzker, will close down indoor video gambling parlors starting Friday as well as casinos, museums, theaters, indoor recreation centers, indoor youth/club and adult recreation sports and certain personal care services.
Pritzker stressed that the measures are an effort to bend the curve in the face of a rising tide of coronavirus cases.
"I definitely think it's unfortunate," said Dave Cochran of Sammy's Slots in Rock Falls. "I understand there have to be mitigations put in place in certain areas, but if you are already following the guidelines and you have six customers in there and they're wearing a mask the whole time, I think we should be able to earn a living and protect our small business."
The mitigations allow bars and restaurants to remain open for outdoor service, pick-up and delivery. Hotels are limited to registered guests. Grocery stores and pharmacies can operate at 50% capacity. Retailers and personal care services like barber shops can operate at 25% capacity. School and daycare decisions are left up to local officials.
The mitigations shut down banquet halls and cultural institutions, ask employees to work from home where possible, limit gatherings including Thanksgiving to members of your immediate household, and shut down sports and recreational activities.
Gyms will also be limited to 25% capacity, requiring face coverings at all times and that patrons make reservations to use their facilities.
Jane Dillon, who owns and teaches taekwondo at Legacy Martial Arts, 21 E. Third St. in Sterling, said she wasn't sure what was next for her martial arts studio under the Tier 3 mitigations, but that she intends to comply with the guidelines for fitness centers.
"How [the new set of mitigations] is going to change what we do, I don't know," Dillon said before her classes started Tuesday evening. "I'll have to sit down with my other instructor and students and discuss the options."
No indoor group classes are permitted under the mitigations, and locker room areas must be closed.
Dillon said she already requires her students to wear face coverings and to practice social distancing during her lessons. She also sanitizes daily the studio's exercise mats and limits the number of students allowed to participate in a single lesson.
"We're already operating at less than 25 percent capacity," Dillon said. "I only have 25 students in total, and never have more than 15 people at a time in the school."
Before March, when strict limits aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus weren't yet imposed on businesses, Dillon had 75 students enrolled in her lessons.
Now, she's instructing the "loyal few" who have continued to learn taekwondo through the pandemic by focusing on drills and individual moves, rather than face-to-face sparring.
"Taekwondo is a combat and contact sport, so it's very difficult to not touch each other all the time," Dillon said. "We're not doing as much interaction or sparring, and I think the kids are getting a little bored with that."
Despite that, Dillon said her students have cooperated with the changes she's had to make, and she expects them to follow any future modifications to her lessons under the mitigations.
"The kids are sort of going along to get along," Dillon said. "I am, too."
The numbers statewide have risen in recent months, with new COVID-related deaths up 260% since Oct. 1.
Cases continue to rise in the Sauk Valley as well.
"With the COVID numbers where they're at, especially in Whiteside County right now, we've just kind of been waiting for the other shoe to drop," Martinez-Frank said. "It definitely complicates any type of scheduling. We're not serving anything at this point, so ordering hasn't been an issue for me, but my employees have been up in the air."
In Rock Falls, Cochran said there are a lot of people who usually come through the door he won't get to see and he worries about them.
"We take pride in our customer relationships," he said. "They come in and they enjoy seeing myself, my mother when she's in there. It's part of their day."