As Cases Tick Up In Central Illinois, Local Experts Urge Masks, Hand-Washing, Social Distancing

Jul 13, 2020

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Ryan Bandy would post photos on social media of patrons packing his bars in Springfield.

“That was my proudest moments, when you see a lot of people in your business having a good time,” Bandy said. “Now, it's bad to do that. It's wrong to have a packed business. And rightfully so.”

Bandy temporarily closed his bar – Win, Lose or Draught – just days after welcoming customers to their indoor space because two of his employees tested positive for COVID-19. He announced the decision on Facebook.

“Honesty is always the best policy,” he said. “And I'd rather be honest with my patrons, my employees and let them know exactly what's going on when it does happen.”

Bandy’s employees are among an increase in new cases in Sangamon County. A dozen residents tested positive for COVID-19 in the first week of June. Last week more than 70 people had.

On Monday, the Sangamon County Department of Public Health reported 24 new cases, for a total of 555.

Meanwhile, the nine-county area around Springfield saw its highest three-day average of new cases since May last week, according to numbers compiled by the Southern Illinois School of Medicine.

Local health experts told NPR Illinois the rise is likely due to people going out more now than during the stay-at-home order. They encouraged the same techniques to slow the spread - practicing social distancing, wearing a face covering when distancing is not possible, and frequently washing hands.

Healthcare leaders with SIU Medicine and Memorial Health System both said the rise did not yet warrant a return to more restrictions on businesses and social gatherings.

The nine-county area around Springfield saw its highest three-day average of new cases since May last week, according to numbers compiled by the Southern Illinois School of Medicine.
Credit SIU School of Medicine

Younger People, Fewer Hospitalizations

Dr. David Graham, senior vice president and chief quality and innovation officer for Memorial Health System, said the number of people who are in the hospital is less than he would expect for the number getting sick.

As of Monday, three Sangamon County residents were hospitalized with COVID-19.

“More young people are getting infected. And they tend to have a little bit less severe infection and less hospitalization rate,” Graham said. “Although… you can still get very sick no matter how old you are, and people are dying at all ages of COVID. So we all have to be cautious.”

Graham said he thinks attitudes about coronavirus changed too.

“I think people have gotten a sense that it's not gonna affect them. And so they can do more, be out in crowds more and do more things,” he said. “A big part of the increase is we've relaxed those things that kept the numbers relatively low in central Illinois, which were the staying at home.”

On June 26, Illinois allowed bars and restaurants to serve a limited number of customers indoors. Salons, gyms and other retail locations could open with some restrictions as well.

Still, Graham said the disease spread in central Illinois doesn’t yet mean restrictions should be put back in place.

The rolling three-day average of new cases in Illinois is up slightly, according to data compiled by SIU School of Medicine.
Credit SIU School of Medicine

‘Nicely Phase Reopening’

Dr. Jerry Kruse – dean of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and CEO of SIU Medicine – agrees.

“We've seen the start of a small rise. We should really be wary of that, we should track it closely,” he said. “ But… overall, all of the indicators in this area are still good for a nicely phased reopening.”

The indicators include the test positivity rate –the percentage of people whose screening comes back positive for COVID-19. The Illinois Department of Public Health reports the rate is 2% for central Illinois. In the Chicago region, it’s twice that, but still below the threshold of 20% in the reopening plan.

Kruse said hotspots including Arizona and Mississippi are seeing positivity rates of more than 20%.

“If we see more than a blip, then a little hump in the numbers here, if it continues to go up, then some days down the road, we'll see more hospitalization and some days after that we'll see more deaths,” Kruse said. “But we're not to the point where we could say that we would predict that that would happen.”

So, while cases are rising, local healthcare leaders and public health officials are urging social distancing, mask wearing and hand hygiene.

Gail O’Neill – director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health – said the health department is working on tracking down everyone who has been in contact with someone with a positive case to encourage them to quarantine and slow the spread of the disease.

She said because of the increase in new cases, the department may need to hire up to six more contact tracers.

Meanwhile, other area restaurants, including Crow’s Mill Pub, have announced temporary closures. The city of Springfield and School District 186 have said a few of their employees have contracted COVID-19.

Bandy – the Win, Lose or Draught owner – said he’ll be changing some operations in his bar when he reopens in the next few days. He said he's asked all his employees to get tested again for COVID-19 before returning to work. 

“I'm taking capacity down inside, I may not even do inside seating. I'm not sure,” he said. “But we're expanding the outside seating a lot bigger.”