PEORIA HEIGHTS – Karen Ficociello of Dunlap is as COVID-conscious as the next person standing six feet away, sweating beneath a cotton face mask and smelling of hand sanitizer.
But in these COVID-touches-everything times, she’s happy not to give up, alter or reconsider one important part of her life, liberty and pursuit of happiness:
Heading to the Heights for a drink with friends.
“I’d say we go to the Heights at least once or twice a week for drinks, dinner, just to meet with friends,” Ficociello said. “These days you always have a concern in the back of your mind about COVID wherever you go, but I can honestly say, I feel perfectly safe there.”
Up and down Prospect Road in Peoria Heights, business on Restaurant Row appears to be booming – pandemic or no pandemic. Often on pleasant summer evenings, the sidewalk and street-side tables are full. People are clustered outside of restaurants waiting for their names to to be called for a spot to sit down. Mask-wearing wait staff hustle among the customers, delivering food, drink and friendly vibes to people intent on leaving COVID worries behind for 90 minutes or so.
It’s a pocket of commerce and camaraderie missing in most corners of the Tri-County Area this summer. And while “booming” is not the word business owners would use to describe their bottom lines, the crowds are testament to the theory of finding strength in numbers. Individually, a business might struggle. But the more than a dozen restaurants and bars in the three-block area of downtown Peoria Heights have found that sharing customers and safety procedures can mean sharing what amounts to success in the middle of a pandemic.
“The Peoria Heights group of restaurants are largely small, family-owned businesses in which we depend on support from the public. We have much more to lose than larger box and corporate entities with deep pockets and borrowing power with banks,” said Robbie Mathison, the co-owner of Pour Bros. Craft Taproom and Slowhand BBQ in Heritage Square. “Because of this we are vigilant in our efforts to promote safety in order to keep the doors open. Many of us barely survived the first shutdown, and a second shutdown would be catastrophic.”
Heights Mayor Michael Phelan knows the value of keeping the restaurants open and viable. The village depends heavily on sales taxes to pay for services and has provided cover for restaurants and bars to move their businesses out onto the sidewalks of their downtown area.
“Obviously, there is a fine line between keeping people employed and businesses open and public safety,” Phelan said. “We followed the state guidelines and stayed shut down when other communities were opening up and now we’re seeing most of our businesses working hard to maintain safety for their customers.”
There have been bumps along the way. Three restaurants and bars – Publik House, Oliver’s and Sullivan’s – closed briefly when a positive case of an employee appeared likely, Phelan said. And the city has heard occasional complaints from the public.
“We’re not going around looking for violators,” Phelan said. “If we check on something, it’s because somebody has complained.”
Police Chief Dustin Sutton, who is also the village’s administrator, said people have called with complaints mostly about people not wearing face masks.
“We’re not seeing a ton of complaints, but we don’t minimize any call. If we get a complaint, we go and check it out and correct anything that might be improper,” Sutton said. “I do know we’ve never had to go back to any place twice because anyone was flaunting the law.”
Sutton said business owners are aware that any perception of a dangerous environment would drive customers away and that one bad actor on the street could help ruin a good thing for everybody.
“What we’ve seen is that they’ve been very good at policing themselves,” Sutton said.
Hugh Higgins owns Hearth, a restaurant in the middle of Restaurant Row. He said he’s seen varying degrees of adherence to the new rules in the area.
“My colleagues have proven to be a mixed bag of disregarding rules both inside and out, and some show concern and try to adhere to safe practices,” Higgins said. “We are perhaps more strict in hopes that our customers will feel more safe here. In many instances, I am happy to say that we have received some good praise for our self-imposed adherence to regulations.”
Higgins said the perception of an active social scene on Prospect Road does not tell the full story of the COVID-19 struggle for small businesses.
“We are doing OK. While initially the blow of carry-out only was quite nearly devastating, we managed to stay afloat by working with minimum staff. When the patio-only business arrived it helped, but it is not enough to sustain,” Higgins said.
Higgins was able to increase his outdoor space when his business neighbor, Ipava State Bank, allowed him to expand his seating to the sidewalk in front of its business, doubling his outdoor capacity.
“Then with the addition of 50% capacity inside, and the help of good weather, we had a decent summer – not equal with last year’s revenues, but good enough to survive with tight management of payroll and inventory,” Higgins said.
For Ficociello, making time for friends during the pandemic includes making time for loyal local businesses.
“All of these businesses (in the Heights) are locally owned and we support local business. No one wants to see anyone close down,” Ficociello said. “We’ve been out other places and in some restaurants the concerns for safety feel a little more relaxed. In the Heights, they just seem to be taking it a little more seriously.”
Sarah Montgomery of East Peoria is a regular customer of Pour Bros. in Heritage Square. With an expansive courtyard that provides seating for a couple of different establishments, Heritage Square is well equipped to handle COVID’s social distancing requirements.
“There’s plenty of room and everybody is diligent about social distancing and safety precautions. They even hand out masks (at Pour Bros.),” Montgomery said. “No one expects this to go on forever. But for now, it’s nice to be able to go out and feel like you’re having normal fun without taking a huge gamble on your health.”