When the coronavirus pandemic hit Illinois in mid-March, dry cleaners were declared “essential businesses,” and were allowed to stay open. Only one thing was missing — essential customers.

“It’s been a challenge for sure,” says Victor Seyedin. Seyedin owns three Lake City Cleaners stores, two in Evanston, on Emerson and on Oakton, and one in Lake Forest.

Seyedin says his business is down 70 per cent, because “people are not going out. They’re not going to work.” And when people don’t go to work, they don’t wear work clothes that need dry cleaning.

It’s the same story at Best Care Cleaners at 1623 Chicago Ave., where owner Yeon Cho says business is down “a lot.”

Ann Hargrove is director of special events for the National Cleaners Association, which has about 20,000 members. Coronavirus means that number will likely shrink. “I think we’re going to lose some cleaners,” Hargrove says.

While the association is based in New York City, Hargrove lives near Evanston, in LaGrange.  So she knows the situation nationwide, and locally as well. She says most cleaners are only doing 20-25 per cent of their normal business. One member, Hargrove says, took in only $300 total one day in March across seven stores. “This is really traumatic,” Hargrove adds.

When people work at home, work clothes become jeans and sweats, which can be tossed into the wash.  No sport jackets. No ties. No blouses. No suits.  But that’s not all. Hargrove says dry cleaners are also not getting the usual business of wedding gowns, prom dresses, graduation gowns and athletic uniforms.   “There’s not a lot out there” to dry clean, she says. “This is a very hard time in our industry.”

But while business is down, costs are up. Plexiglass shields, hand sanitizer, and other health and safety procedures are not free. And the landlord still wants the rent.

Seyedin, who has been in the dry cleaning business for 20 years, says it’s important to at least keep the doors open, even with reduced hours. “We have loyal customers,” he says, and they need to know he’s still there when they decide to come back.

Some business is starting to return, but it’s still slow. Cho noticed a slight uptick in June, as Illinois entered Phase 4 of the governor’s “Restore Illinois” plan, and more businesses re-opened. But her business still remains “very low.”

Seyedin has also noticed a small increase. He just said hello to a customer he had not seen in three months. “He brought a big bag of cleaning,” Seyedin says. “It was a good feeling.”

But long-term prospects are still, as Hargrove puts it, a work in progress. “We’re all saying we have to wait and see what happens.” That means hoping more people work at the office instead of at home, and more customers are unafraid of getting COVID-19. “When people feel comfortable,” Hargrove says, “they’ll come out more.”

When they do come out, dry cleaners may have to put in a new, as-yet-undetermined service model. “It will never be the same,” says Seyedin.  We have to adjust and make changes accordingly.”

Change is never easy, especially change forced by a pandemic which has no immediate end in sight. “It’s scary,” says Hargrove. “Very scary.”

In fact, you could say the coronavirus is taking dry cleaners to the cleaners.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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