ROSCOE — Jessica’s Restaurant owners decided to defy a state order restricting restaurants in Winnebago County to outdoor dining only, and they have been surprised by the outpouring of support from the community.
Following the orders by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker mandating that restaurants in Region 1 shut down indoor dining, owner Fati Mixha put out an impassioned message on the restaurant’s Facebook page, which said in plain language: “We are staying open.”
What Mixha witnessed in the days following came as a surprise.
“I did expect the community to support us, because they always have,” Mixha said. “But doing it like they have has blown me away. The response to the Facebook post was amazing. The analytics on the post said that it had reached over 100,000 people, which for a little restaurant in Roscoe is insane.”
The restaurant went on to have one of its biggest weekends in recent memory, with generous local residents pouring in.
“It’s very validating,” Mixha said. “It made us all feel very good. Our wait staff had some of their bigger days they’ve ever had. I had a waitress given a $100 bill on a small order and being told to keep the change. We had multiple people eating alone at the counter leaving $20 tips. It’s just been incredible to witness.”
Restaurants and bars in Winnebago County were placed on restrictions because the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests ad exceeded 8% and other warning signs indicated increased concerns about the spread of the virus.
Dr. Sandra Martell, Winnebago County Health Department director, noted on Monday there have been 30 businesses in the county where complaints have been filed regarding violations of the state order. Jessica’s Family Restaurant was one of the businesses to have a complaint filed. Other area businesses receiving complaints included Fear Fest, Mustang’s Bar and Grill and Nora’s Restaurant in South Beloit, and Sofia’s restaurant in Roscoe.
Mixha said his business has been focused on strict compliance in regards to COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“From the beginning, we’ve done everything to a ‘T’,” Mixha said. “We have all of our people wearing masks. We are social distancing. Half of our restaurant isn’t even being used, which sucks, but that’s the nature of the pandemic. We aren’t staying open for political reasons, to put the screws to the government and make money. That’s not what this is about. It’s about being able to help our employees, most of whom have been here a long, long time. We’ve got a waitress here who has worked here since the place opened. They are like family to us.”
The circumstances from when the restaurant had to close for the first time in the spring have changed.
“Back then, you had the stimulus check and you had the $600 per week that our employees could collect,” Mixha said. “There are still some opportunities out there, but not like before.”
MIxha said he knows there will be some pushback by those on social media.
“There is a vocal minority out there, and we definitely want to understand where they are coming from, too,” Mixha said. “But the feedback we’ve gotten has been 99.9% positive so far, and that’s been great to see.”
Despite the state order, Mixha doesn’t believe Jessica’s will have a problem remaining open. He said he has talked with local police and village officials and he expects no problems.
Other communities in Winnebago County are working with both the health department and businesses.
South Beloit Mayor Ted Rehl said city officials and police are visiting businesses where complaints have been filed to inform them of health risks and possible consequences, but Rehl said city police will not shut anyone down.
“We will be visiting the business,” Rehl said. “We won’t be closing anyone down, because we don’t have that authority.”