ROCKFORD — You don't have to be infected by the new coronavirus to be affected by it. Just ask any number of small business operators who suddenly find themselves in dire straits after closing their doors to customers on the orders of state and local officials trying to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

Many of the small business owners are seeking government assistance in the form of grants or loans to tide them over until the state's stay-at-home order is lifted and daily life as we once knew it returns.

Local small business owners Diane and Barry Tope, Waunie Neal and Hazel Williams don't know one another, but they understand one another's struggle in the face of uncertainty surrounding when, or if, they will be able to reopen. They wonder: Is there a point of no return?

"We're all in this together," Diane Tope said. "I don't want to see anybody close their doors. I hope that someone can come up with a plan to save the local businesses."

'Zero income'

Many retailers ensure a profitable year during the period from Black Friday through Christmas Eve. For Diane Tope, owner of Great Hang Ups, a South Rockford Avenue clothing store and bridal shop, that time is now.

"This is supposed to be our peak season — March, April and May — where not only are the brides getting married and buying gowns and the men are renting tuxes, the prom girls are buying their dresses with me and their dates are also renting tuxedos. So this is really hurting," she said. 

The store has been closed since March 21.

"When you go through a slow winter, you are looking forward to the peak time," Tope said, "and now due to the virus we are shut down."

Tope's husband, Barry, owns and operates Flipside DJ Entertainment, performing for weddings and other special occasions throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. His 31-year-old business also has come to a grinding halt.

"So we have zero income," Diane Tope said. "And we are giving money back to people who have rented tuxes for prom or weddings because they've been canceled."

The Topes said they now fear depleting their savings.

"It's a scary time."

Diane Tope said she has three employees and has applied for assistance through the new federal Payroll Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses so they can pay employees during the COVID-19 crisis.

"We don't know if anything will happen, but I did apply for it," she said. "I know many are applying."


Hazel Williams, a home-based Rockford beautician; her husband, Michael, an employee at the Fiat Chrysler Assembly Plant in Belvidere; and their two children ages 5 and 3 were saving money and looking forward to visiting family in Florida.

Little did they know they were actually saving for a rainy day caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The family scrapped the planned vacation and settled for a staycation.

"I guess it was a blessing for me that we had saved up for a vacation," Hazel Williams said. "We're just kind of using that money to purchase groceries here and there."

Williams said she and her family are fortunate. Her husband and other Fiat Chrysler workers are scheduled to return to work in early May.

"Financially, we are OK right now," she said. "Hopefully, the stay-at-home order will only be for another three or four weeks. Anything after that, that's when it's going to start getting a little bit tight."

As a favor to her customers and as a means of generating some income, Williams told her clients that, for a fee, she is willing to do conference calls and video consultations showing how to care for their hair.

"I can walk them through the different steps, and I can kind of show them how to do it on my mannequin," she said. "So it's kind of creating new avenues of being able to take care of my clients."

In a way, the stay-at-home order is doing what the vacation was supposed to do, Williams said.

"Usually, the kids are in school and my husband is at work, and we're very busy with our church. So this is a blessing to sit still and actually get back to basics and enjoy family time. I always try to look for the positive in everything."   

Classic Cuts

Don't be surprised if you see some activity inside Classic Cuts Barbershop at 1014 S. Main St.

Owner and barber Dawaun "Waunie" Neal said he is going to take advantage of his empty storefront to do some interior painting.

"I'm just going to switch it up," he said. "I don't want it to come back to how it used to be. I want a whole new environment."

Neal, who hasn't cut any hair since March 13, stopped by his shop Monday to visualize changes to his business and spoke of changes in his life brought on by the coronavirus. 

He's been busy.

Neal has created a hair-cutting tutorial video to help his customers while he's closed. He's developing, where he plans to post the video. He is also studying to become a licensed real estate broker, spending more time with his family and, for daily exercise, putting his treadmill to use.

What he isn't doing is spending money.

"I'm just living off savings," he said.

Neal said he has applied for a small business loan, but is uncertain if or when the money will be available.

"There's a whole lot of people applying for these loans," he said. "There's no telling when they'll get to me."

Editor's note: Great Hang-Ups is located at 613 S. Rockford Ave. An earlier version of this story listed the incorrect street.

Chris Green:; @chrisfgreen