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COVID closures cast doubts over small biz recovery

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MAKANDA (WSIL) -- Small businesses are struggling throughout the nation and, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, southern Illinois' business owners worry they may not recover from this economic shutdown.

"This view from right here is over a mile and you can't see one other structure," said Ed Cook , who owns and operates Rocky Comfort Cabins, a set of three vacation rentals tucked away in the hills of Makanda, with his wife Nancy.

Looking out over acres of open space with a hill rising in the distance, the couple speak with enthusiasm for the business they have built together over the past six years.

"You can actually watch the weather," said Nancy, pointing out over the prairie. "It's storming over there. Mist is rolling in. [You] feel like you stepped into this magical world."

The couple are more than financially invested in their business, they are the business. From designing, building and furnishing cabins rated Top Ten on the Illinois Office of Tourism's website, until COVID-19 hit, they averaged a 97-percent occupancy rate.

"This small business is our primary income," said Ed, adding, that like other small businesses shuddered by the virus, that income is on hold. "If it comes to the point that we cannot survive financially, and lose this property and these three buildings, then we don't have any income whatsoever, we're out."

Despite Washington passing a two trillion dollar stimulus package Friday, small businesses are struggling to hold on.

"There's a lot of solutions coming out at a Federal level, at a state level, and there's some really good grants and loans coming up, but we realize through all that - there's people that are going to slip through the cracks," said Crown Brew co-owner Josh Benitone.

He and partner Jared Gravatt said they feel like they dodged a bullet. The two are in the final months of moving into their new location downtown Marion. They said if they had opened as planned, they would have turned around a few weeks later only to lay off staff.

"Where there's a lot of solutions for W-2 employees for certain kind of expenses," said Benitone. "There's also a lot of local businesses that are husband and wife owned, it's their sole source of income, and there's not options to help people like that."

And it is that financial conundrum keeping Ed and Nancy concerned for the future of their business. While their business remains open, and they follow the CDC COVID-19 guidelines, customers are staying home.

"It's just beautiful out here, and we don't want to lose it," said Nancy.

With the "gig" economy in mind, and seeing their friends and neighbors laying off staff, closing their doors and still unclear if benefits from the Stimulus package will reach them, the Crown Brew owners created Marion United.

Marion United is an effort to help keep local small businesses afloat while COVID-19 keeps customers at home. A live-stream event will take place on the Friday, April 3rd.

"It's going to have a bit of a telethon feel, so you can donate through links or call in," said Benitone. "Obviously we're taking donations now, but all the funds that come in through the event and through are website are going to create a grant specifically aimed at helping businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic."

Joe Rehana

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