I have been a vocal proponent of residents staying at home and social distancing in March and April. It is clear these efforts have helped bend the curve, slow down the spread of COVID-19, and save lives. For that, thank you!
Social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands works. It is science. The experts were right in this regard. We should continue to listen to their guidance as the governor's order comes to an end on April 30.
Unfortunately, early May is also the time we are expected to hit our peak in COVID-19 cases in Winnebago County. It is important we do not get a false sense of security because models are being adjusted down to reflect the success of our citizens' commitment to social distancing.
This virus spreads quickly, hits hard, and a second wave will be larger than expected if we do not apply these principles going forward. When will it be over? It will be over when we have a vaccine which may be an estimated 12-18 plus months away. This is not the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 response. But, perhaps by sometime in early to mid May, it may be the end of the beginning of the response.
A public health crisis, by itself, is extremely challenging. A public health crisis coupled with an economic crisis is much more difficult. To that end, more than 22 million Americans have become unemployed over the last six weeks. 513,000 Illinoisans filed for unemployment between early March until April 5.
That is a 400% increase over the first five weeks of the Great Recession. A recent study showed a large percentage of small businesses are concerned about their survival over the next year. I don't need to tell you how hard this has hit Winnebago County. You see it with your own eyes. You hear the stories with your own ears. The video of the Charles Street shoe shop owner and his mother talking about how hard this has been on their business and family brought many of us to tears. Their story is the story of many small business owners in the Rockford Region.
Just as COVID-19 impacts the health of some more harshly than others, some are harmed financially far more than others. To be clear, the governor was right to take decisive COVID-19 mitigation action in mid-March. Inaction would have cost lives and we would be in a worse position now.
However, it is also clear there is some degree of inequity between big box stores and small businesses in the order itself. This is despite selling some of the same products and services. This needs to be re-evaluated.
Economic leaders, like public health and health care leaders, share their expert opinions in their respective areas of expertise. They all have solutions that are easier to implement when there are no other complicating factors to consider. Unfortunately, we don't have that luxury given this two-front war. And, although we all agree the biggest threat to the economy are major surges of COVID-19 cases, we need to adjust our strategy at some point in May.
Social Distancing 2.0, for lack of a better term, would allow for small business to re-open but with strict adherence to the social distancing principles that we know work. Unless things change, it may not be prudent to just 100% restart all business May 1 or some other arbitrary date, even though we all want that to be the case.
It has been said that right balance may not be about "flipping the switch" on the economy as much as it is about adjusting the light dimmer where we phase-in changes over time. That is what we need to do.
Social distancing is going to be a way of life for the rest of 2020. The science of social distancing will work in a small business if we are vigilant. And vigilance is key because consumers will not return to their normal shopping habits if they do not feel safe. So, let's adjust our strategy a little at a time, evaluate as we go, and move forward, together.
Progress is the goal even if it will not be perfect. I have respectfully relayed these thoughts to the Governor's Office. Other community leaders have shared similar thoughts.
Thank you for your commitment. Together, we will get through this.
Frank Haney is Winnebago County Board chairman.