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Businesses battle COVID-19 labor shortage; local governments in mandate limbo

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With skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in the region, Southern Illinois businesses and local governments are finding new ways to navigate and adapt with long-term strategies.

Local businesses are having trouble staffing their stores, local governments are wondering what to do next with ever-changing vaccine mandate rules, and above all, community members like Francis Murphy, a general manager at the Neighborhood Co-op, are concerned for their neighbors.

“Over 800,000 Americans have already died from COVID and health care facilities are once again becoming completely overwhelmed, including SIH,” Murphy said. “It gives me a lot of concern. People in the community can’t have elective procedures done because there's no capacity to do that. A lot of the people, many of our customers, work for SIH. I can see how overwhelmed they're becoming by the whole thing. So I know it's definitely having a negative impact community-wide and that concerns me, for sure. You know, here at the Co-op, we encourage all of our staff to get vaccinated and of course, everyone wears masks when they're working. So we're just doing what we can basically to try to ameliorate the effects of this latest surge.”

Sick creates strain 

In both Williamson and Jackson counties, the current 7-day case total as of Thursday is above 1,200 cases, according to Illinois Department of Public Health figures. That is well above the 375 and 404 case counts in Williamson and Jackson counties seen as of Dec. 30.

Several retail businesses and restaurants have closed in Carbondale due to labor shortages caused by employees needing to quarantine with COVID-19, according to William Lo, the CEO of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce.

Despite city ordinance requiring businesses to have employees and customers wear masks indoors, many are still getting sick.

The Neighborhood Co-op has even seen an increase in sick employees following everyone traveling home for the holidays, Murphy said.

People have questioned whether a shutdown may be coming in the future; however, many in local government don’t see that happening.

“I think with the state of the current economy, another shutdown will have drastic and adverse effects for most small businesses unless there is some financial support from either the state or federal level,” Lo said. “I feel that we all have the responsibility of keeping each other safe. Whether that's staying at home if you don't feel well, wearing a mask, or getting vaccinated and boosted. I think we all have a social obligation in keeping our friends and neighbors safe.“

Roni LeForge, spokeswoman for the city, said she thinks the community can avoid a shutdown if everyone does their part to stop the spread.

“The increase in cases is concerning, but we believe if every business and every person does their part to stop the spread, we can safely remain open,” LeForge said. “Please get vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask, wash your hands, and keep your distance when possible.”

Lo had a similar thought when he spoke about local businesses’ roles in decreasing the spread of the virus.

“I feel that businesses have a crucial role in stopping the spread and keeping the community safe,” Lo said. “Most people don't realize that retail and restaurants dread the normal flu season. Staff and employees interact with hundreds of people each day and are at risk of contracting any seasonal illnesses. I think the business has an obligation to keep their staff safe, in methods that are in line with their daily operation. Common policies that should be standard is sending their employees home if they are ill or feeling unwell, having their employees tested in the event of an exposure. The welfare of our employees should be a priority in any business.”

Changing guidelines 

The city of Carbondale started mandating employee vaccinations in the fall of 2021.

“At the start of the pandemic, we implemented a mask policy for all employees, enhanced cleaning, and restricted travel,” LeForge said. “The mask policy is still in place and we’ve continued to be proactive to protect our employees and the public. We recently implemented a vaccine policy. Now, 98% of City employees are vaccinated. We are encouraging the booster, although it is not currently a requirement of employment. We have also asked city employees to return to online meetings via Zoom or another platform, when possible.”

However, other local governments have been in a state of limbo since the Biden administration announced a vaccine and testing mandate for large employers with 100 or more employees.

The Supreme Court ended up ruling against the mandate on Thursday. Since then, the Illinois Department of Labor has not taken any formal action to undo its plans to follow federal mandate guidelines; however, IDOL previously indicated they would rescind if the Supreme Court rule in such a way.

The Marion City Council, which adopted the mandate rules on Monday as a precautionary measure ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, has yet to rescind that vote.  

City attorney Wendy Cunningham previously explained that when Illinois OSHA released its timeline, they required employers have a policy in place by Feb. 24.

Even two years into the pandemic, vaccine, testing and even mask mandates remain a controversial topic. Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens said no matter which side one stands on, all can agree everyone should care about their neighbors.

“My advice to residents would be to get vaccinated and wear a mask, particularly in places where social distancing is going to be difficult and when you are going to be around people who are immune-compromised,” Stephens said.

Ways to worship

Meanwhile, area pastors say the increasing number of cases is having an effect on churches. Jacob Bird, lead pastor of The Journey in Marion said his church has delayed plans to return some areas of worship back to the way they were pre-pandemic.

He said the church decided to delay plans to no longer stream worship services online and will continue to offer communion with individual, pre-packaged elements rather than having worshipers come forward in services.

“We will just continue to put off some of these changes until we move to the next phase of ‘normal.’ We hope that is for the short-term,” he said.

Carbondale's Vine Church was forced to postpone a youth retreat planned for the weekend. Church leaders said the event, which would have included students from churches in several states, was impacted by COVID concerns.

"We have several COVID cases that have made people cancel and several more exposures waiting for test results as well," a statement from the church said.

— Reporter Les O'Dell contributed to this report. 

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