Debates over masks shake up Illinois communities, including bucolic Genoa | national

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GENOA, Ill. – In many ways, the golden cornfields, sleepy country roads, and tidy Main Street of Genoa, Illinois, with a population of 5,200, seem from the pages of Thornton’s “Our Town” Wilder.

A tight-knit community that voted red in the 2020 presidential election, Genoa has recently become a work-from-home haven for exhausted former city dwellers who are enamored with its bucolic beauty and small-town charm.

It also recently became the last front in pandemic culture wars when a handful of students began showing up at Genoa-Kingston Community Unit School District 424 wearing fake masks this fall.

Made of mesh, the masks are designed to deliberately challenge public health mandates by allowing air to flow freely through the fabric. District 424 Superintendent Brent O’Daniell earlier this month called the masks “really belligerent” and flouting the intention of Governor JB Pritzker’s school mask tenure.

“I think unfortunately the political environment at the state level and the federal level is taking a toll on people at the local level, which is difficult, sad and very frustrating,” O’Daniell said.

The debates over school masks have sparked controversy in communities across Illinois. But some of those who have made Genoa their home say their hometown shouldn’t be judged by the rare eruption of political hotspots.

Instead, many residents say the past 18 months have provided new ways for people – whether they vote red or blue – to come together, to make sure a new restaurant on Main Street stays afloat. organizing blood drives at the local fire station.

Pay next

When Beau, the son of Denise and Brad Norris, was born with multiple heart defects in 2012, parishioners at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in Genoa hosted a fundraising spaghetti dinner to help the young family pay their bills. increasing medical conditions.

This month Denise Norris, 39, organized a blood drive at the fire station, where she works as an administrative assistant, and her father, Bruce Kozlowski, 61, is the volunteer chef.

For Norris, having multiple blood drives each year is “about kindness and giving it back.”

“I wanted to be involved in something that would have the most impact,” said Norris, who recalled the relief she felt seeing her son Beau return to normal after receiving a blood transfusion following complications. during a tonsillectomy when he was 5 years old.

This fall, Norris is busy overseeing distance learning for the couple’s three school-aged children – a decision she says has been made to help prevent Beau from being exposed to the COVID-19 virus, which is believed to be dangerous due to her heart disease, she said. .

“For the past year and a half we’ve been trying to avoid COVID, so since we can keep all of our kids learning at home right now, we’re going to do it,” Norris said.

Norris, who said his family were vigilant about the masking, said: “I have never had a conversation with anyone in town about the masks.”

Still, concerns that some families in Genoa have expressed to the local school board about Pritzker’s school mask tenure should perhaps not be unexpected given the community’s voting habits.

In 2018, voters in Genoa showed weak support for Democratic candidate for governor Pritzker at the polls, with 54% of voters in the city’s first constituency voting in favor of the re-election of Republican Bruce Rauner. Two years later, 59% of voters in Genoa’s first constituency voted in 2020 to re-elect Donald Trump, with just 39% supporting President Joe Biden.

Tip pot filling

Genoa’s political views are not on the menu at Sib’s Corner Grill on Main Street, where owner Gregg Sibigtroth laid a shingle on March 3, 2020, just weeks before COVID-19 shut down the state.

“It’s been tough, but luckily I’ve been busy, because my restaurant’s business model can offer customers street-side delivery, and for months everything was on-the-go,” said Sibigtroth, whose restaurant now offers indoor and outdoor dining. terrace service.

“It’s a tough business, but the best thing I have seen during the pandemic is the loyalty of our customers and the way they have supported us, with some of them ordering deliveries two and three times a week.” , Sibigtroth said.

While business has been booming, Sibigtroth said the biggest challenges he faces 18 months after opening the restaurant are serious gaps in the food supply chain for items like burgers, wings and paper products.

It was also almost impossible to find someone interested in working in a restaurant, he said. Sibigtroth has recruited relatives, including his son, sister and brother-in-law, to help him run the restaurant while he searches for employees, but “it’s still not enough”.

“I hear so many customers telling me that they appreciate that we are open … I didn’t want to get a tip pot, but we did pull one out, and it’s amazing how generous people have been. “, did he declare.

Chicago native Michael Cirone, management broker and owner of 3 Roses Realty, said he moved to Genoa in 2008 and has never looked back.

“The real estate market here has been crazy all year. … The day a property comes on the market, it comes out, ”Cirone said. He estimates that 60% of his clients work from home, moving from Chicago and the suburbs to “a quaint little town, where the air is clean and they can get away from all the traffic and madness.”

In addition to young families drawn to the Genoa-Kingston school district, buyers include retirees who are building maintenance-free homes in the city’s 55+ development, said Cirone, a member of the city’s planning committee. .

Genoa’s agricultural roots predominate in the area’s many family farms, but the eastern part of town is home to several manufacturing plants, as well as mom and pop businesses, Cirone said.

“When people come here I think it’s a revelation,” Cirone said. “They can still get to Chicago in about an hour, but there are also a lot of events here and lots of places to eat and drink, including a winery.”

In addition to recent transplants, Genoa is still home to those who can trace their family’s history in the city to the mid-19th century, including Orrin Merritt, 76, a fifth-generation Genoa resident and board member. from the Kishwaukee Valley Heritage Museum.

A retired Genoa High School teacher, Merritt gives a tour of the museum’s exhibits, which are housed in a former train depot and include everything from a 19th-century hearse to a collection of antique telephones.

A former stagecoach stop for travelers heading from Chicago to Galena, Genoa was also once a popular hub for area farmers selling hay, oats, wheat and corn, Merritt said.

For Merritt, who raises tilapia on a small farm a few miles outside of town, one of the many disruptions caused by the pandemic had to put the annual fourth-year project from elementary school to the museum on the back burner.

Recalling a recent fundraiser for a family mourning the death of an infant, Merritt said: “The people in Genoa are very kind and considerate, at least most of the time.”

Down the road from the museum to district 424 headquarters, the school board hotly debated the mask conundrum earlier this month, weighing the views of parents who think they should decide on the type of masks that their children wear to school against appeals by a school nurse who has urged authorities to ban mesh masks in the interest of public health.

Parent Amber Eberly stepped in to lambast the school district’s efforts to ban fake masks.

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, ‘why is this important?’” Said Eberly, adding: “Every parent has made a good faith effort to send their children to school with masks , against their will and against the original plan, which was an optional mask.

O’Daniell, the district superintendent, said that while most families follow Pritzker’s mask mandate, even if they don’t believe it, a small minority “push the boundaries.”

District 424 School Board President Matt Krueger said the revised mask policy did not require a vote and clarifications recommended by the teachers’ union and local public health department to ban mesh masks are already applied.

So far, no teacher has contracted COVID-19, and five or fewer students have tested positive for the virus, Krueger said. “Our school’s goal is to keep students and teachers safe, and we have done it and will continue to do so. “

© 2021 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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