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Chicago Restaurants Brace for Possible Shelter-In-Place Order

Restaurants owners await the city’s next move

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot will address Chicagoans on Thursday night.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoots spoke to Chicagoans Thursday night in a rare evening address. Some felt the mayor would follow suburban Oak Park and issue a shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The order didn’t come Thursday.

Lightfoot hasn’t tipped her hand as restaurant owners await details on whether the city will continue to allow carryout and deliveries. The address was livestreamed on the city’s website. New York is also considering the order, and officials in San Francisco already have one in place. But the announcement in Oak Park brought the news home for Chicagoans. The suburban order, which came Wednesday and goes in effect Friday for at least two weeks, has more Chicagoans thinking shelter in place is inevitable. Oak Park is allowing carryout and delivery, but Chicago will have to wait to hear what happens in the the city. An evening address is a rarity for Lightfoot, and speculation is building about her announcement. During a virtual meeting Thursday morning, Illinois Restaurant Association president and CEO Sam Toia consented that restaurants, already adapting to Sunday’s order to close their dining rooms from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, may have to adjust again. Toia has been plugged in with government officials throughout the crisis.

“There’s definitely a possibility we’ll have a shelter in place,” Toia said.

The order’s impact has frustrated restaurant owners, who want to know as soon as possible what they are allowed and not allowed to do.

“It’s unlike any other situation that any of us has ever dealt with,” said Brian Jupiter, chef and partner at Frontier in West Town and Ina Mae’s Tavern in Wicker Park. “We’re waiting for news before making moves.”

Toia said he’s been in regular contact with Pritzker and Lightfoot’s offices, but he said the city and state don’t have the money to help the industry. Instead, he’s looking at securing grants from federal government that would allow restaurants to take care of payroll and rents for the next six to eight weeks. Restaurant owners would go to their local banks for such a grant, which Toia pointed out would be preferable to being saddled with debt from a small-business loan. Toia wants the federal government to intervene in the same way it helped the auto industry and banks in 2008.

The novel coronavirus has hurt restaurant sales by about 75 percent, Toia added. Restaurants that are positioned to do a large volume of takeout and delivery — Toia singled out pizzerias and Chinese restaurants — are staying afloat. But the key is to provide restaurants with cash for their bills. Chinese restaurants have been the victims of racism, and many have closed during the pandemic. A Chicago food crawl through Chinatown last month tried to show support.

On Wednesday, Oak Park, one of Chicago’s biggest suburbs, announced shelter in place would last from Friday through at least April 3. The order allows essential services, like health care facilities and grocery stores, to remain open. Restaurants serving delivery and carryout can also operate. Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who is a restaurant owner, is conscious of how the industry has been impacted by the pandemic. His family runs the Pizza Capri chain, and he has plans for the Pilsen space where he once ran Monnie Burke’s.

Meanwhile, on Thursday morning, Lightfoot announced that the city would temporarily suspend — not waive — all debt-collection practice and non-safety-related situations and impounds, plus late payment fees through April 30. That could help restaurant owners prioritize their bills, perhaps allowing them to allocate more cash toward payroll.

It’s an uphill battle for restaurants, but Toia said he’s ready.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “We’re at war with the virus, that’s what we are.”


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