Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is pessimistic that the city’s restaurants will reopen for outdoor dining on May 29, she shared with reporters Thursday. Gov. J.B. Pritzker voiced a vote of confidence on Wednesday when he said the entire state was on pace to hit the health benchmarks needed to hit Phase Three of the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan — the phase that will now allow restaurants to open for patio dining. Lightfoot, however, doesn’t share that confidence that Chicago will hit the health benchmarks in time, sticking with her prediction that restaurants will reopen in June, according to the Tribune.
Lightfoot’s pessimism may explain why the city hasn’t released safety guidelines for restaurants with outdoor dining, which has been the prerequisite to reopening restaurants in other parts of the country. In Chicago, owners await clarification about face coverings, how far tables should be placed apart, and customer capacity. There’s also confusion surrounding sidewalk patios; Pritzker on Wednesday said that seating should be away from sidewalks, but he did not rule out the use of sidewalk patios. The city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department would over see those rules. BACP hasn’t returned a message for comment.
The rules released by the state on Wednesday were written broadly to apply to all of Illinois. Illinois Restaurant Association CEO & President Sam Toia says it’s now up to Lightfoot and other local officials to clarify and provide direction for their restaurants. For example, towns in Southern Illinois may have wider sidewalks, which would make social distancing easier for sidewalk patios compared to Chicago where buildings and roads are placed closer together.
There’s also confusion over whether bars without food will be permitted to operate. The state’s rule mentions “restaurants and bars,” but it seems that refers to businesses that include both, like “bar & grill” restaurants. Toia says he didn’t know of many bar without food service in Chicago with sidewalk patio permits. Licensing adds to the confusion — taverns can’t have sidewalk patio licenses without food. But a bar, say like Queen Mary in Wicker Park, doesn’t operate as a restaurant per se, as it doesn’t serve food regularly. But it does have a small kitchen. It could, in theory, qualify to be open. (The bar’s owners at Heisler Hospitality are in a holding pattern waiting for the city’s guidelines.)
And for restaurants specifically, not everyone has a patio permit. Patio licenses are rarities for South Side businesses, for example. Which means that, while the government and Toia are hopeful for creative solutions like closing roads to vehicles and cordoning off parking lots to make room for tables, those solutions may not actually help many businesses. Gov. Pritzker has said that he hopes outdoor dining would be a “boost for hospitality”; Toia is hopeful Lightfoot delivers ideas and guidelines that could help the entire city.
Another potential headache may be the city’s oft-criticized deal with LAZ Parking. If roads are closed and LAZ can’t collect meter fees, the contract requires the city to relocate the meters or pay in impact fee, Toia says. Lightfoot needs to time to work on a solution to that, as well.
Other restaurants, like Brass Heart in Uptown, don’t have the room for patio dining. Chef Matt Kerney, who runs the fine-dining restaurant, says he’s eager to watch how other restaurants reopen with patio dining and take notes. He also wants to take his time to ensure safety for staff and customers.
“My biggest thing with reopening is to make sure customers feel safe, that they feel the right precautions are being taken and that they can enjoy their experience,” he says.