Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday that the state will now allow dine-in restaurants to serve customers on back patios as early as May 29. This represents a victory for the Illinois Restaurant Association, which has been lobbying Pritzker to allow restaurants to reopen earlier than the previously announced June 26 target date set by the government (dine-in restaurants have been closed in Illinois since March 17). Pritzker said any open patio seating will have to be away from sidewalks. Rooftop patios may also benefit.
These dates are subject to health benchmarks which the Illinois Department of Public Health is tracking online. Currently, the entire state, including Chicago, is on track to hit those targets, Pritzker said. The governor, speaking from Springfield, said that summer offers restaurant owners an opportunity. Health experts feel outdoor dining is safer and have given the state the okay to expand its plan to “bring back more activities faster as long as Illinoisans have been doing what we have been doing.”
“The governor’s announcement provides a glimmer of light at the end of this very dark tunnel,” Illinois Restaurant Association CEO and President Sam Toia said.
Toia said the government and association continue to work on the rules for outdoor dining, including specific guidance on face masks. The governor mentioned spacing tables out six feet apart and ensuring tables are away from sidewalks. There was no announcement about bars, as Toia said bar licensing is different compared to restaurants. He added that the association is pushing plans to reopen bars safely.
Pritzker faced pressures as many restaurants and bars reopened this month in neighboring Indiana and Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, local elected officials can still keep businesses closed (like in Milwaukee where dine-in restaurants aren’t open). Wisconsin officials can also chose to allow bars and restaurants to operate without social distancing guidelines, like what’s happened in West Allis, Wisconsin. Restaurants and bars in other parts of country have reopened with restrictions such as reducing capacities and mandating staff and customers to wear masks. Mandates, of course, don’t always mean diners will follow: In New York, for example, some crowds have ignored social distancing.
Pritzker and Toia pointed to local officials like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, urging them to come up with more creative ways to help restaurants: Imagine streets closed down to create European-style plazas, or the use of parking lots for tables to promote safer dining habits, strategies other cities across the country have implemented.
Toia foreshadowed a restaurant announcement by standing behind Pritzker during Wednesday’s briefing. Members of the association have been negotiating with Pritzker’s staff this week after originally being miffed that they were left out of initial conversations with state health officials. For all involved, it’s been a difficult balance in weighing public health concerns with the desire for business owners to make money.