Several Chicago restaurant owners have gone on record about their frustrations about Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan to reopen the state, a plan that would make them wait until at least late June to resume dine-in operations. The Illinois Restaurant Association has backed those owners and wants Pritzker to move up the timeframe to reopening dining rooms and bars to later this month.
Late Thursday, the association began a messaging campaign to the governor and other elected officials arguing that waiting until June 26 “underestimates the restaurant industry’s ability to reopen and operate safely with enhanced public health measures in place.” Dining rooms and bars have been officially closed in the state since March 17. On Thursday, Pritzker unveiled a five-phase plan, Restore Illinois, on Tuesday that allowed restaurant and bars to reopen pending health benchmarks. The association wants restaurants and bars included in Phase Three which could start as early as May 29. Restaurants and bars, under the plans, could reopen during Phase Four, which could start as early as June 26.
Many restaurants don’t have the savings to last that long. On Thursday, the owners of Income Tax, an Edgewater restaurant that opened in 2016, announced it would not reopen. Despite a quirky name, Income Tax evolved from more than a wine bar to one of the best neighborhood restaurants in the city. It was a success story in Edgewater, serving up adventurous small plates without alienating nearby residents. The closing is another blow for Chicago’s restaurant world, one that worries about that fate of independent restaurants like Income Tax. While the restaurant won’t reopen, owners said they’ll continue to sell alcohol to go while thinning inventory.
The Tribune spoke to several restaurant owners who panned Pritzker’s plan. That group included Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ R.J. Melman. Melman, whose father founded Chicago’s largest hospitality company — a group that includes Beatrix, R.J. Grunt’s, and Aba — calls the framework “a gut punch.” He was hoping to open on June 1. The association’s CEO and President Sam Toia tells the Trib that the state didn’t consult with them in developing its plan. Later on Friday, Toia would tell the Sun-Times that restaurants could open earlier by reducing capacity by 25 percent.
While stressing to the public that safety remains the first priority, other owners, like Fifty/50 Restaurants Group’s Scott Weiner and Boka Restaurant Group’s Kevin Boehm, expressed disappointment.
Pritzker says the public will be able to follow progress on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website. However, on Thursday, state health department head Dr. Ngozi Ezike said they’ve yet to add those statistics to the site. If Chicago and its surrounding counties hit certain numbers, health officials would advance the region (Illinois has been divided into four of them) to the next phase and bring it closer to a full reopening. Phase Five, the final phase, will only happen once researchers develop a vaccine or COVID-19 treatment. Conventions and music festival will have to wait until then.
During Thursday’s COVID-19 briefing, Pritzker fielded a question asking if Chicago will lose convention business to states already open. For example, Atlanta — a huge competitor to Chicago for conventions — is in Georgia. That’s where Gov. Brian Kemp had drawn criticism, including from President Donald Trump, over reopening the state. Pritzker said “he’s the first person that wants to bring business” back to Illinois, but would defer to health experts when it came to allowing large gatherings.
And in other news...
- As draft beer sales plummet with bars closed during the pandemic, the state’s craft beer association is trying to rallying its members. The Illinois Craft Beer Guild has launched Passport at Home, a program where customers can win brewery gift cards and other prizes for posting photos of themselves drinking beer on social media using a special photo frame (supplied by the brewery via pickup or delivery) and the #passportathome hashtag. There are more than 100 participating Illinois breweries, according to a news release, and winners will be announced on Fridays (starting May 14), until the campaign ends on June 4.
- The infamous Twitter user ChicagoBars, who has deep roots in the city’s hospitality industry, has set up an Etsy shop to peddle digital photos of North Side bars that could be used as Zoom backgrounds for video conferences. At $3 a pop, this is a fundraiser for bars. There are seven bars with backgrounds so far: Beermiscous, Delilah’s, Frank’s Bar, Murphy’s Bleachers, Nisei Lounge, Sheffield’s, and Will’s Northwoods Inn. ChicagoBars is also organizing an event on Saturday encouraging customers to bring their growlers and buy draft beer from nine participating bars. COVID-19 — as noted above — has devastated draft beer sales as bars have remained closed in Illinois since March 17. If customers buy beer from three of the listed bars on Saturday, they’ll be invited to a party held whenever health officials deem it safe for a gathering of that magnitude. The participating bars are: Village Tap, G-Man Tavern, Will’s Northwoods Inn, Murphy’s Bleachers, the Green Lady, Sheffield’s, Waterhouse, Nisei Lounge, and Corridor Brewery & Provisions.
- John Manion, owner of El Che Steakhouse & Bar in West Loop, is making his butcher’s counter — something he added after the restaurant closed in March due to the pandemic — permanent within the restaurant. The restaurant’s front space is being redesigned, and they’ll officially launch El Che Meat & Provisions during the week of Memorial Day, May 25, according to a news release. Besides the fresh meats, like the hulking Maximo beef rib available at his Time Out Market stall, Manion will also sell prepared foods like salads and sandwiches at 845 W. Washington Boulevard. There’s also meals to go which require reheating at home.
- And finally, there two more weeks of ESPN’s The Last Dance, the documentary about the 1990s Chicago Bulls and hoops legend Michael Jordan. For the last three weeks, shows have premiered on Sundays. Jordan’s teammates are also sharing their stories. One player who spent two seasons with the Bulls in the ‘90s, Jason Caffey, tells the Undefeated that Jordan’s fame made it difficult for him to be in public when team was atop the NBA. That included basic tasks like grocery shopping. So Caffey says Jordan made an arrangement with his local Jewel-Osco grocer. He’d call the store about 15 minutes before closing time and told them he would be arriving. Employees would keep the store open later to let Jordan shop in peace, without being mobbed by autograph seekers. Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, returned the favor by generously tipping store staff, Caffey says.