It’s been 78 days since Governor JB Pritzker closed restaurants and bars, and Wednesday marks another step toward economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in Chicago and across Illinois. Wednesday, even with a rainy forecast, represents the first day that restaurants and cafes could welcome customers back, but only for outdoor dining. Bars without food will have to wait.
Patrons and staff will be required to wear masks (dinners may unmask after seated) and tables will be required to be six feet apart. At the S&G restaurant, a Lakeview restaurant on the corner of Southport and Lincoln, a group of two sat down to sit on the patio around 6:30 a.m., Frances Kountas says. His family owns the restaurant.
“They didn’t even mind sitting in the rain,” says Kountas. “They were so happy to be seated.”
Kountas says she is also happy to see customers. However, major restaurant companies like Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Gibsons Restaurant Group, Boka Restaurant Group and One Off Hospitality Group will not be opening restaurants on Wednesday. Some will open on Thursday, others on Friday. A combination of rain, mental fatigue from protests of police brutality by George Floyd and concerns about looters has many restaurants waiting.
Some establishments, including freelancers, don’t see the benefit of putting workers or customers at risk. They are waiting for a vaccine. Michael Simmons, the chef and owner of Café Marie-Jeanne in Humboldt Park told the Grandstand that “we have not advanced with the disease. On top of that there is massive civil unrest because our government hates black people. So having six people on a perspex terrace is such a low priority for us right now.
The city’s open roads program, which closes streets to vehicles so restaurants can set up tables and chairs, also doesn’t appear to be a priority. Last week, the city announced it would close streets in Chatham (75th Street), Gold Coast (Rush Street), Lakeview (Broadway), Little Italy (Taylor Street), Little Village (26th Street), West Loop ( Randolph Street).
Restaurant owners in Chatham, Lakeview, Gold Coast and West Loop say outdoor dining will not take place until next week. That’s despite Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s assertion on Tuesday that the program would begin on Wednesday. Earlier this week, as concerns over looters mounted, local leaders began to lose hope that open roads would start on Wednesday as planned.
The authorization process was slow. Many restaurateurs only discovered the requirements, which are hosted on the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Special Events website, on Tuesday.
Greg Shuff, owner of DryHop Brewing in Lakeview, near Belmont and Broadway, says “it’s difficult to recruit staff [a] patio restaurant only with limited notice. He has good news: today, he will open his terraces on the sidewalks, notably at Corridor Brewing on Southport.
In addition to having little notice to gather application materials, restaurateurs are concerned about the time the city will take for the review. City officials say it will take five days. Slow pace is a common complaint. On Tuesday, Governor JB Pritzker signed a bill that legalizes takeout cocktails in Illinois after months of lobbying. But Lightfoot said Chicago bar associations will have to wait two weeks for city council members to introduce the legislation, and it could take until July to legalize the practice in Chicago. The next city council meeting is scheduled for June 17.
Given the deliberate pace, a West Loop restaurant owner tells Eater Chicago that he fears open roads will only debut after the city allows indoor dining. And when that happens, it won’t really be the lifeline for struggling restaurants that state and city governments are touting.