A pandemic that devastated restaurants may also have brought a silver lining — at least that’s the hope of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot as she works to make outdoor dining facilities due to COVID-19 permanent.
Lightfoot has submitted a proposal to formalize, with no end date, the rules that would allow eligible eateries to set up tables on the roads in front of their establishments, restrict lanes or completely close parts of some streets to traffic.
Those rules, introduced in 2020 and extended twice until the end of this year, allowed some restaurants to reopen during the early months of the pandemic, while maintaining social distancing and restricting indoor gatherings.
Under the new proposal, restaurants and bars can apply for annual permits to extend street dining from May 1 to October 31. Those with sidewalks too narrow for a sidewalk cafe could place curbside seating, and groups of three or more businesses could request full street closures.
The plan, which must be approved by the city council, “includes feedback and lessons learned from the past two years to enable eligible restaurants to continue operating responsibly on the roadway immediately in front of or adjacent to their establishment,” according to a statement. city press release.
“I’m excited that Chicago is now building on the success of this program and developing long-term ways to support our hospitality and dining industries with inviting dining spaces in our neighborhoods,” Lightfoot said in the release.
After the abrupt cessation of indoor dining in March 2020, some restaurants revolved around takeout or even grocery delivery, but many couldn’t survive and close for good. Lightfoot was cautious about allowing restaurants to reopen a few months later, waiting longer than many parts of the region and state. But around the same time, in late May 2020, she launched the Expanded Outdoor Dining Permit, a measure she now aims to codify.
Lightfoot has previously expressed an interest in expanding outdoor dining beyond pandemic parameters. In March 2021, she launched Chicago Alfresco with incentives for restaurants to design “long-term creative outdoor spaces.” She tweeted at the time: “Last spring we expanded outdoor dining out of necessity. Now we are expanding it because we love it.”
The commissioner of the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection said the new initiative is an “exciting next step in Chicago’s outdoor dining program, which is a fundamental part of Chicago’s vibrant food culture.
“The ongoing Expanded Outdoor Dining program supports small businesses and neighborhoods, as it has from the beginning,” said Commissioner Kenneth Meyer in a press release.
In the three seasons of expanded outdoor dining since 2020, restaurants and bars have built shelters for dining in both warm and cold weather. Winners of a 2021 winter dining design competition came up with heated tables and glass booths, many versions of which came into place during a winter spike in COVID-19 cases when the omicron variant surged.
Still, some restaurant owners have said permit fees and a lack of communication from officials, coupled with fears the roadblocks could drive takeout customers away, are a mixed bag when it comes to helping profits.
Lakeview was the first neighborhood to test the outdoor dining program in 2020, blocking North Broadway south of Belmont Avenue on the neighborhood’s east side.
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Melissa Bulger, general manager of the bustling, no-frills Stella’s Diner, said closing the hallway is helpful but not critical. “It doesn’t make a huge difference, but of course it allows us to seat more people, which is good,” she said on Thursday.
In the Lower West Side area, Bacchanalia Ristorante is an Italian family restaurant that focuses on classic recipes. Paula Pieri, who owns the restaurant with her brother, said the street closures in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood have been a boon to business.
“Some older people are still skeptical about eating indoors, so this really helps,” Pieri said.
The restaurant continues to eat outside along South Oakley Street, while keeping diners comfortable enough when the weather turns colder.
“Unfortunately, we can only take advantage if the weather permits,” Pieri said. “We’d love to have those igloos they have at Fulton Market, but they’re so expensive.”
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