PEORIA — With two sparkling white Peoria Charter Coach buses parked behind him, company owner Bill Winkler stood at a podium Friday morning asking for help keeping his business afloat during the COVID-19 shutdown.


"I am asking the federal government for more financial relief because the PPP is going to run out, and then no cash flow, no business," said Winkler, referring to the loan he received in mid-April through the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program.


Peoria Charter Coach, which has a hub in Urbana as well as Peoria, ferries groups of people to special events all over the region. Except for a single bus running back and forth to the airport in Chicago from Urbana, they have been completely shut down since the the state’s stay-at-home order was issued. With so few people traveling right now, even that route is not breaking even, said Winkler.


Even though the federal government has deemed Winkler’s business essential, no federal assistance has been forthcoming.


"My industry represents 3,000 privately owned businesses, 90% of those are small businesses," Winkler said. "The fed government has directly given publicly owned airlines, Amtrak, and transits more than $75 billion. Our industry, nothing. Nothing directly. I have to get my money from the PPP."


The two coaches parked behind Winkler will be joining other coaches from across the US in Washington, DC, as part of an effort to raise awareness for the cause.


"On Wednesday my two coaches are going to join 1,000 coaches that will be touring Washington, DC, with the message of ‘federal government, we need more relief,’" said Winkler. "What we are asking for is only $10 billion in grants, and $5 billion in long-term, 0% interest rate loans. These 3,000 motor coach businesses have no income coming in right now. Nothing."


Winkler has been CEO of Peoria Charter coach for 20 years. The business was founded by his grandfather in 1941. COVID-19 is the worst thing that could ever happen to the business, Winkler said.


"I don’t want to come off as angry. I do not, because anger means hate, and there is no hate in me. I’m not angry, I’m very sad," he told the group.


Winkler also issued a plea to Gov. JB Pritzker. While the federal government has deemed coaches essential, the state of Illinois has deemed them non-essential. Under Pritzker’s plan to re-open the state in phases, coaches wouldn’t be able to start running again until Phase 4 when 50 people will be allowed to gather in groups. Each bus holds 56 people. Winkler is asking for Phase 4 to begin in Peoria sooner than the anticipated late June date.


"Governor, you have done a wonderful job in protecting Illinoisans to be safe and healthy, but for me, as a motor coach owner, what has to happen is Phase 4," said Winkler. He asked the governor to tweak his plan so that recovery in Peoria, which has seen relatively few deaths from COVID-19, is not slowed down by other areas that have been more greatly affected by the pandemic.


While the PPP helped Winkler keep paying his employees through the shutdown, not everyone has fared so well. Winkler crunched some numbers to come up with a startling statistic to support his point.


"Two hundred and twenty five people have lost their job for every one death in Illinois," he said. "Here’s the point: Yes, COVID-19 kills, but so does poverty."


Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.