Note to readers: Princeton Mayor Joel Quiram sent the following letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker on May 18.
Dear Governor Pritzker:
I first want to thank you for your quick and determined response to COVID-19. I don’t think Illinois is second to any state in taking the pandemic seriously, and putting procedures in place to protect the residents of Illinois. Your briefings have been consistent in scope and have kept residents and local municipalities up to date on everything COVID related.
I am writing today on behalf of the residents of Princeton. We are a rural Bureau County community of 7,600 people located in north central Illinois on I-80. In recent years our community has experienced a resurgence on Main Street. Buildings have been bought; fašades have been upgraded at significant expense of these small business owners. New businesses have opened and they have flourished. Ten years ago, almost half of our uptown and downtown store fronts sat empty. Today, only a small handful remain unoccupied. Unfortunately, as is the case in many rural Illinois communities, the pandemic is threatening the survivability of these businesses and of all our local rural economies.
First and foremost, the priority for everyone is the health and well-being of our residents statewide. We know COVID-19 is real. In Princeton, we have followed the guidelines set forth in your executive order, and CDC guidelines are being followed, but as time marches on, there is a restlessness among residents not only here, in Princeton, but throughout the area. There is not a clear understanding of what COVID-19 means to us moving forward, considering the numbers documented here and elsewhere.
I’d like to cite the concerns:
1) The COVID numbers do not reflect a current threat of the virus spreading here. As I mentioned earlier, Princeton sits on I-80, the busiest highway in the country. Everyday thousands of vehicles take our exit, the drivers of those vehicles and their passengers visit our gas stations and other nearby businesses, and they are soon on their way. This happens up and down I-80 every day. There are 6 communities besides Princeton that sit on I-80 that I’d like to highlight, beginning with Morris, with a population of 14,918. They currently have 26 positive COVID cases. Next is Ottawa, population of 18,128 and 17 positive cases. Then LaSalle, population 9,064 with less than 6 cases. Peru, population 10,257 with 6 cases, Princeton, population 7,545 with 6 cases and Geneseo, population 6,514 with 8. Total population of these communities combined is 66,426 with 69 positive cases, or 0.0010%. Thousands of vehicles and thousands of people, non-residents, taking these exits every day since this pandemic began over two months ago.
2) All these communities have essential businesses just off their interstate ramps. Princeton has three large retail type businesses, deemed essential, within eyesight of I-80. There is another business, deemed essential, just a mile or so up the road. Each of these businesses lets hundreds of people through their doors everyday, and they have been doing so since this pandemic began. These shoppers have not all been tied down in isolation in Princeton or Bureau County since the pandemic began. Many have traveled to Chicago and elsewhere, and many are not from the area. Until a couple of weeks ago most shoppers were not wearing masks, and yet with all this there has been no outbreak of COVID-19 anywhere in our area. The same for all the communities listed.
3) In Princeton, we have a distribution center deemed essential with employees totaling upwards of 600 people. They are running three shifts. They have been open since the pandemic began. There have been no positive cases associated with the center. We have another manufacturer in town, also deemed essential, with over 200 employees, also with no positive cases. Two other manufacturers, both deemed essential, with employees totaling approximately 250 combined have been open since the pandemic began. Neither with a positive case.
4) Our small Main Street boutiques and gift shops and homeware businesses (all essential to Princeton) do not come close in space to handle even a fraction of the customer numbers that other retail businesses, deemed essential, see on a daily basis. Yet all of these businesses, essential and otherwise, sell essentially the same type product with the exception of groceries.
There must be a balance among the health and well-being of residents in rural Illinois and keeping our economies solvent. The Stay at Home order soon expires and I fear an extension. Moving into Phase 3 of your plan appears plausible at the end of May, but the recent Rules being discussed in order to strengthen governmental powers regarding businesses reopening is concerning to me and many others.
I ask that you please consider a more rational segmenting of the state than what is currently in place. Let us, locally, decide for ourselves what makes the most sense to our specific situation. There is no question that we must all remain vigilant in practicing social distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands often, staying home when possible; anything to make ourselves and others feel safe. We will succeed, and our rural towns and communities will soon, once again, begin to flourish.
Mayor of Princeton