By Bob Balgemann


From a couple of sentences to full blown discussion, the coronavirus pandemic that’s menacing the world commanded a big portion of the May 20 Boone County Board meeting.

Topics ranged from the wish, and need, for local businesses to reopen as quickly as possible, to the generally escalating number of COVID-19 cases in the county and its municipalities since April 4, and how the downtown Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) office is “constantly seeing new cases,” according to a report given that night.

Amanda Mehl, administrator of the County Health Department, provided updated local numbers through May 20, which showed 328 cases and 15 deaths locally. Since then the following reports have been issued by department staff: 26 new cases and one additional death on May 21; 22 new cases on May 22; and 20 new cases on May 23.

But there was good news on May 24, when only nine new cases were reported, resulting in a new total of 405 cases and still holding at 16 deaths.

Locally, 75 percent of the cases came from the community, with 25 percent from congregate living settings, such as nursing homes.

Later in the meeting board member Jessica Muellner expressed concern that Boone County, with a 53,000-ish population that ranks it 16th among Illinois’ 68 counties, was doubling “when it comes to the rate of infections and deaths. Why isn’t that a concern?”

“That is part of the reasons we at the local level would be tracking our numbers,” Administrator Mehl answered. “I don’t disagree with you. In our nine-county region, if you remove Winnebago County, there have been times when we had more cases than DeKalb County, which is a much more populated county (104,997) than we are. We are definitely leading the region in case counts.”

Reopening Boone

In looking at the region that includes Boone County, board member Denny Ellingson said it seemed the city of Rockford had walked away from a lot of the state guidelines and was reopening barbershops, stores, and other facilities next week. “We’re seeing a lot of the same thing in southern and central Illinois,” he said. “People are moving ahead and forgetting the state.”

Earlier in the meeting Capron residents Tony Savino and Jerry Fanson, under the public comments portion of the agenda, both encouraged the board to take steps toward reopening the county.

“I implore the county board to take appropriate measures to stand apart from the State of Illinois and Gov. Pritzker’s mandates and edicts that are closing everything down, and ordering other types of limitations.”

He said he wanted the county “to manage our own situation” and “limit the health department’s abilities, as we have seen in Wisconsin, to further dictate limitations that are unlawful.”

Moving ahead?

Ellingson said he agreed with those speakers, saying, “We need to try and walk through these things as quickly as possible, and get back to business. A lot of Wisconsin is open; Winnebago County is going to open. Boone County businesses will continue to suffer as people go elsewhere for their needs. Is there a way we can get open a little bit quicker, as others are seen doing that?”

Mehl replied it was her understanding that a few regional plans for reopening, and a few local plans for reopening, had been submitted to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the governor’s office. But as of May 20, none of them had been approved.

As a caution, she said municipalities and counties as they move from one phase to another, on the road to reopening the state, must be sure they don’t retreat from one phase to another. That also was true of closing stores after they reopened.

Our (nine-county) region has been cleared to move to Phase 3, effective May 29 (Friday),” she said.

With reopening the county on the horizon, Growth Dimensions is working with businesses that are moving toward recovery. Pam Lopez Fettes, executive director, said a recently renamed organization of community leaders, called Forward Boone County, has a list of processes and protocols businesses should have in place to reopen.

She also reported on some matters related to the local economy:

* Organization staff is talking with companies on their relocating to the county, existing companies looking to expand and the availability of grants, some related to needs generated by COVID-19.

* The office is starting to get notices from the automotive industry that there is going to be a reduction in the workforce that might be for a longer term. That’s because of the social distancing that would be required of employees, which couldn’t be maintained unless another shift was added.

Growth Dimensions, established in 1979, is the marketing arm of the county and its municipalities.

Other business

Also at the May 20 board meeting members:

* Heard colleague Jeff Carlisle report the CASA in downtown Belvidere currently had 29 cases, six of them new, and 17 new children. “We’re constantly seeing new cases,” he said.

In addition, he said United Way funds have decreased again “and we’re wondering how that’s going to affect us over the next couple of years. The funds are just not there.”

CASA relies on fundraisers to help finance its countywide work of advocacy for children, and one of them, a car show, is being proposed for August. With the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on most walks of life, he said, “We’ll let you know if that’s going to happen.”

* Was informed by Health Administrator Mehl that staff was reviewing findings of the Walking Audit, conducted through the county Hunger Coalition, which was finished in February. This was a study of the walkability of the downtown business area, to get to and from selected areas such as the La Canasta Super Market, from low-income neighborhoods.

Almost 200 community surveys on that subject were received by the coalition.


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