Coronavirus brings uncertainty to Chicago restaurants and bars

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Normally, downtown Chicago is filled with festive greenery the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day. But this year, the mood is dampened thanks to the cancellation of city events like the Chicago River Dye, as health officials issue guidelines for handling the novel coronavirus pandemic. Over the past few days, bustling Michigan Avenue has been reduced to a ghost town with fewer people on the Mag Mile sidewalks as many downtown workers opt to stay home to reduce their exposure.

Chicago is not experiencing exactly what cities like LA, New York and Seattle have experienced. Health officials in Los Angeles have encouraged people at risk, including pregnant women, to avoid public places like restaurants. Cook County Health Department Commissioner Allison Arwady reminded reporters Friday at City Hall that she had not issued such an executive order.

On Friday afternoon, the state announced it would close all public schools starting Tuesday. Schools would reopen on March 30. Meanwhile, the state health department has reported 46 cases of COVID-19 in Illinois, including 13 in Chicago and suburban Cook County. Also on Friday, Hideout Inn, the neighborhood’s original dive and entertainment space, announced it would be closing through March due to COVID-19 concerns. The bar, near Lincoln Park and Bucktown, has set up an online fundraiser for its employees with a goal of $10,000.

Not all business owners have followed Hideout’s lead. On Thursday, Emerald Loop sported its full set of St. Patrick’s Day decorations outside, inviting customers to celebrate. Manager Conor O’Keeffe took an optimistic attitude and said it was too early to speculate how his business would be affected. He also noted that most bars in the area – the “fake Irish” – did not put up decorations this year.

“That probably gives us an advantage,” O’Keeffe said.

O’Keeffe said the bar had a reservation for 7 a.m. on Saturday for 200 people, an annual group gathering to celebrate. The bar is already taking the necessary precautions. He was in the process of sending a group email to staff telling them how to respond to any customers with concerns. Some customers need a little extra attention, and O’Keeffe hopes to reassure them. They won’t be alone, as Block Club Chicago has reported that a glut of St. Patrick’s Day pub crawls will still take place over the weekend.

Emerald Loop is ready for Saturday.
Ashok Selvam / Eater Chicago

Meanwhile, one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, the world’s largest Starbucks, was quiet. A cashier said there was no rush Thursday morning. At Aster Hall, inside the 900 stores in northern Michigan, a worker said restaurant business had declined “slowly but surely.” He spun around and greeted a colleague, bumping his elbows. The worker then described how business went this week – moving his hand in an arch and making a sound like a missile crashing into Earth. Earlier in the week, he said, Aster Hall had not seemed terribly affected by the virus, with customers still coming from offices in the building. But as of Thursday, space management was encouraging people to work from home. That means fewer customers for the Michigan Avenue food hall.

Restaurants have flooded customers’ inboxes with emails trying to reassure them that they’ve taken the proper precautions. Ferdia Doherty – co-owner of Farmhouse, a restaurant with locations in Lakeview, River North and suburban Evanston – messaged on Wednesday.

“We have seen a significant drop in the number of customers frequenting our restaurants over the past two weeks,” Doherty explained in an email, adding that the losses are due in part to cancellations of municipal and private events.

More than a few restaurant owners have compared the current economy to the drop in business seen after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises president RJ Melman said events were the first to drop. Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Nationwide, Illinois Restaurant Association, said restaurant sales have fallen 40 to 70 percent. That’s one of the reasons Chicago-based Grubhub announced Friday morning that it was delaying the collection of fees to encourage consumers to order food from certain restaurants; the company is still determining which restaurants would be eligible for relief. Despite Lettuce’s roughly 120 restaurants, the company will likely be eligible for fee relief, as Grubhub CEO Matt Maloney said the company is still working to define categories. Maloney, flanked by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Toia, was praised for helping small businesses.

“These are tough times, there’s no doubt about that for restaurants,” Toia said. “Grubhub’s suspension of these fees will help restaurants in our 77 communities pay their mortgages, pay their rents, and most importantly, as the mayor said, payroll.”

At Alinea, Chicago’s only three-star Michelin restaurant, management sends home any worker whose temperature exceeds 100 degrees. Co-owner Nick Kokonas tweeted that they were taking temperatures and recording them. Workers sent home would be paid if the virus did not force Alinea to shut down, Kokonas wrote.

At Lao Sze Chuan, the most popular Chinese restaurant downtown, there were many empty tables during lunch on Thursday. A server said it had been slow, partly fueled by xenophobia. The waiter said the restaurant could last but may have to pursue new business strategies — perhaps, for example, offering the $10 take-out lunch special to dinner customers.

Lao Sze Chuan’s dining room was nearly empty on Thursday afternoon.
Ashok Selvam / Eater Chicago

Restaurants have also had to reconsider their openings. A major chip fell Wednesday night when the NBA suspended its season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19. This caught the eye of restaurateur Sean Thomas, the grandson of Dave Thomas of Wendy fame. (Wendy’s namesake, Melinda Lou Thomas-Morse, is Dave Thomas’ daughter and Sean’s aunt.) Sean Thomas plans to open his first restaurant, Fresh Stack Burger Co., in April in suburban Chicago. But he and his team have been following news of the novel coronavirus and may revisit his opening timeline.

“The last thing we would want to do is open a restaurant at the height of a pandemic,” Thomas said.

A restaurant representative said private event coordinators are now focusing on smaller gatherings, like baby showers and bachelorette parties. They can no longer rely on money from tourism. A representative for Tao Chicago this week lamented online about the cancellation of a private event that cost $50,000 at the River North restaurant and club.

The cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day events has caused stress for bar owners who have already been buying booze in anticipation of large weekend crowds coming to see the Chicago River dyed green. The state has given small business owners a break: Federal and state laws normally do not allow bars to return alcohol to distributors, but the state liquor commission on Wednesday granted an exemption.

Many are suggesting that customers buy gift cards or beer lovers buy growlers from their favorite bar as a way to support restaurants and breweries. former publican beer manager Adam Vavrick tweeted about how local breweries don’t have the same resources as macro-breweries. The suspension of the sport could hamper beer sales. Distributors who do not peddle major brands of beer and wine are also vulnerable. The timing of the outbreak, after a “dry January” and during the Lenten season, is also troublesome, Vavrick added.

Governor JB Pritzker issued new guidelines on Thursday, recommending banning events with more than 250 people. The recommendation forced the cancellation of concerts, plays and other performances. But it has also brought opportunities, as ticket holders for these events end up in open bars. There was a small queue outside Lost Lake in Logan Square as customers waited to check out a pop-up. Death & Co. of New York is occupying a residence at Lost Lake until Saturday.

So there were some clarifications. In the meantime, Toia urged continued cooperation with public and private actors during this time of uncertainty.

“What we do in Chicago is we unite, we come together, which is why we’re the greatest city in America and the culinary capital of the United States as well,” Toia said.

5419 N Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL 60640

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