Normally, downtown Chicago is full of festive green the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day. But this year, the mood is muted thanks to the city’s cancelling events like the dyeing of the Chicago River, as health officials issue guidelines in managing the novel coronavirus pandemic. Over the last few days, bustling Michigan Avenue has been reduced to a ghost town with fewer people on the Mag Mile’s sidewalks as many downtown workers have elected to stay at home to reduce exposure.
Chicago isn’t experiencing exactly what cities like LA, New York, and Seattle have gone through. Health officials in LA have encouraged at-risk people, including those pregnant, to avoid public places like restaurants. Cook County health department commissioner Allison Arwady reminded reporters on Friday at City Hall that she had not issued such an edict.
On Friday afternoon, the state announced it would be closing all public schools starting on Tuesday. Schools would reopen on March 30. Meanwhile, the state health department reported 46 COVID-19 cases in Illinois, including 13 in Chicago and suburban Cook County. Also on Friday, Hideout Inn, the quirky neighborhood dive and performance space, announced it would close 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 $10,000 goal.
Not all business owners have followed the Hideout’s lead. On Thursday, Emerald Loop was sporting its full set of St. Patrick’s Day decorations outside, inviting customers to celebrate. Manager Conor O’Keeffe held 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 “fakey Irish ones” — didn’t put out decorations this year.
“It probably gives us an advantage,” O’Keeffe said.
O’Keeffe said the bar has a reservation for 7 a.m. on Saturday for 200 people, an annual group gathering to celebrate. The bar is already taking proper precautions. He was in the middle of sending a group email to staff to tell 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 reported a glut of St. Patrick’s bar crawls will still take place over the weekend.
Meanwhile, one of the of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, the world’s largest Starbucks, was tranquil. A cashier said there was no morning rush on Thursday. Over at Aster Hall inside the 900 North Michigan Shops, a worker said food hall business had been declining “slowly but surely.” He pivoted and greeted a coworker by bumping elbows. The worker then described how business has been going this week — moving his hand in an arch and making a sound like a missile crashing to Earth. Just earlier in the week, he said, Aster Hall hadn’t seemed terribly affected by the virus, with customers still coming from the building’s office space. But as of Thursday, the space’s 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 — sent a message on Wednesday.
“We have seen significant drop off in guests frequenting our restaurants in the past couple of weeks,” Doherty elaborated in an email, adding that the losses are due in part to city and private event cancelations.
More than a few restaurant owners compared the present economy to the decrease in business seen after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’s President R.J. Melman said events were the first to drop. Nationwide, Illinois Restaurant Association president and CEO Sam Toia said restaurants sales have dropped 40 to 70 percent. That’s one of the reasons Chicago-based Grubhub on Friday morning announced it is delaying fee collection to encourage consumers to order food from select restaurants; the company is still figuring out which restaurants would qualify for relief. Despite Lettuce’s 120 or so restaurants, the company will likely qualify 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 trying times, no question for restaurants,” Toia said. “Grubhub suspending these fees is going to help the restaurants throughout our 77 communities pay their mortgages, pay their rents, and most importantly, as the mayor said, make payroll.”
At Alinea, Chicago’s only three-Michelin-starred restaurant, management is sending any worker with a temperature reading more than 100 degrees back home. Co-owner Nick Kokonas tweeted that they’re taking temperatures and logging them. Workers sent home would be paid if the virus doesn’t force Alinea to close, Kokonas wrote.
Ahead of publishing a broader piece, here is what The Alinea Group has instituted this week:— nick kokonas (@nickkokonas) March 13, 2020
Every Alinea Group employee is temperature checked when arriving to work, the temp is logged, and any reading over 100F results in the worker being sent home for self quarantine. (cont)
Over at Lao Sze Chuan, downtown’s most popular Chinese restaurant, there were plenty of empty tables during lunch on Thursday. A server said it’s been slow, partly fueled by xenophobia. The server said the restaurant could endure but may have to pursue new business strategies — perhaps, for example, offering the $10 to-go lunch special to dine-in customers.
Restaurants have also had to reconsider openings. A major chip fell on Wednesday night when the NBA suspended its season after a player on the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19. That got the attention of restaurateur Sean Thomas, the grandson of Dave Thomas of Wendy’s fame. (Wendy’s namesake, Melinda Lou Thomas-Morse, is Dave Thomas’s daughter and Sean’s aunt.) Sean Thomas plans to debut his first restaurant, Fresh Stack Burger Co., in April in suburban Chicago. But he and his team have been following the news of the new coronavirus and may revise his opening timeline.
“The last thing we would want to do is open a restaurant at the height of a pandemic,” Thomas said.
One restaurant rep said private event coordinators are now focusing on smaller gatherings, like baby showers and bachelorette parties. They can no longer rely on tourism dollars. A rep from Tao Chicago this week lamented online the cancellation of a private event that cost the River North restaurant and club $50,000.
The cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day events has caused stress for bar owners who already purchased bought alcohol in anticipation for big weekend crowds coming to see the Chicago River dyed green. The state has given small business owners a break: Federal and state laws normally don’t let bars return liquor to distributors, but the state liquor commission on Wednesday made an exemption.
Many are suggesting that customers buy gift cards or that beer lovers purchase growlers from their favorite taproom as means to support restaurants and breweries. Former Publican beer director Adam Vavrick tweeted about how local breweries don’t have the same resources as macro-breweries. The suspension of sports could stymie beer sales. Distributors that don’t peddle big beer and wine brands are also vulnerable. The timing of the outbreak, after “dry January” and into Lent season, is also troublesome, Vavrick added.
Big Beer is gunna get creamed in sales with all the sports things shut down. They've got enough money and resources to weather the storm, but your local breweries do not. Buy their beer this week please.— Adam Vavrick (@beeradam) March 13, 2020
On Thursday, Governor J.B. Pritzker issued new guidelines, recommending banning events of more than 250 people. The recommendation has forced cancellation of concerts, plays, and other performances. But it’s also brought some opportunities, as ticket holders to those events find their way to open bars. There was a small line outside of Lost Lake in Logan Square as customers waited to check out a pop-up. New York’s Death & Co. is taking up a residency in Lost Lake through Saturday.
So there have been some bright spots. In the meantime, Toia urged continued cooperation with public and private stakeholders during this period of uncertainty.
“What we do in Chicago is we unite, we come together, that’s why we are the greatest city in America and the culinary capital of the United States as well,” Toia said.