CHARLESTON — O’Brien Field filled with hundreds of athletes, coaches, and excited attendees Thursday for the IHSA girls track and field state finals.
The event on the campus of Eastern Illinois University brought together people from all over the state and beyond, on the eve of the Illinois’ Phase 5 reopening.
Starting Friday, all state businesses, large-scale events, conventions, amusement parks and seated venues will be able to operate at full capacity for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
People who have been fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear face coverings in most settings and businesses are no longer required to enforce mask mandates or maintain social distancing rules, although they may continue to do so if they choose.
People who have not been fully vaccinated are still encouraged to wear face coverings, and all people are still required to wear face coverings while traveling on public transportation, in congregate settings, in health care settings as well as in schools, day cares and educational institutions.
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Those changes come 15 months after Gov. J.B. Pritzker first issued a disaster declaration in response to the pandemic which, as of Thursday, had infected nearly 1.4 million people in Illinois and claimed 23,014 lives.
Due to the wide availability of vaccines, which first became publicly available in January, new infections and hospitalization rates have reached their lowest points since the pandemic began.
“Post-COVID. It’s just wonderful to be out,” said Juan Gardner, principal of Madison High School. “I’m so thrilled our young ladies can compete. We’re turning the corner with the pandemic, and that way we can get back to some degree of normalcy.”
Restaurants, hotels and other business in Charleston and Mattoon are welcoming the return of the girls track and field state finals this week and the boys finals next week, as well as the easing of the state’s COVID-19 measures. For the students and families, it’s an exciting time, too.
“I’m a little nervous because this (meet) is so big, but I’m just so excited to run,” said Jaden Randall, who was at the meet to run the 4×4 relay. This was the first time Randall, a sprinter at Roanoke-Benson High school, was competing in the meet but not her first time at the event. She had been to the meet before as an alternate.
“I’m pretty proud to see them go to state,” said Randall’s grandfather, Russ Lewis, who drove up from Arkansas.
Coaches have also been happy to see their students get to compete, again.
“I’m just super excited for the kids — especially the seniors,” said Tavares Young, the head boys track coach from Madison High School. “Five, six months ago, we didn’t even know if we would have an opportunity. That would be two seasons of not participating at all. Just for some of them to get a chance to compete, hopefully get post-high school scholarships or opportunities for after school, I just think it’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved.”
Stadium Grill general manager Matt Myerscough said many of the track and field teams have become repeat customers over the years at this Mattoon restaurant. Since the state finals have resumed in Charleston, he has already seen some familiar team names be placed on the reservation list.
“They know we have a banquet room they remember can accommodate large tables for their teams,” Myerscough said. Stadium Grill offers space for its customers to spread out in its main dining room, the banquet room, and the outdoor seating area that it updated last year.
Myerscough said Stadium Grill is excited to have the track and field teams back in town as COVID-19 measures ease in Illinois.
“It does bring a lot of business to the hotels and restaurants over here,” Myerscough said of the state finals.
Suite Dreams Hotel co-owner Jeff Sisco in Mattoon said the return of the state finals is a “great change” that “feel more like 2019,” when the events were last held, than the shutdowns of 2020.
“It’s great to have them here. We have many teams here for this week and next,” Sisco said.
To get ready for the influx of teams, Sisco said Suite Dreams has stocked large quantities of waffle mix and other food to serve up breakfast for the athletes each morning. Sisco said he and his staff also have been working extra hours to get the hotel ready for its many guests, noting that the ongoing, multi-industry employee shortage in the area has left vacancies in his staff.
Still, Myerscough said he has been glad to see easing COVID-19 restrictions bring more customers to the adjacent Don Sol Mexican Grill and more business and recreation travelers to Suite Dreams.
“I can already see it reflected in reservations in the system,” Myerscough said, adding that 2020 had been a difficult year for hotels and many other businesses.