A pandemic wreaking havoc on restaurants might also have produced a silver lining, at least that’s Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s hope as she moves to make COVID-19-driven outdoor dining provisions permanent. .
Lightfoot has submitted a proposal to formalize, without an end date, rules that allowed eligible restaurants to set up tables on roads in front of their establishments, limiting traffic lanes or closing portions of some streets entirely to traffic.
Those rules, introduced in 2020 and extended twice through the end of this year, allowed some restaurants to reopen during the early months of the pandemic while maintaining social distancing and limiting indoor gatherings.
Under the new proposal, restaurants and bars can apply for annual permits to expand their street dining from May 1 to October 31. Those with sidewalks too narrow for an outdoor cafe could place seats in sidewalk lanes, and groups of three or more businesses could request complete street closures.
The plan, which must be approved by the City Council, “incorporates feedback and lessons learned from the past two years to allow eligible restaurants to continue to operate responsibly on the roadway immediately in front of or adjacent to their establishment,” said a statement from city press.
“I am pleased that Chicago is now building on the success of this program and establishing long-term ways to support our hotel and restaurant industries with engaging dining spaces throughout our neighborhoods,” Lightfoot said in the statement.
After the abrupt closure of indoor dining in March 2020, some restaurants pivoted to curbside pickup or even grocery deliveries, but many couldn’t survive and closed for good. Lightfoot was cautious about allowing restaurants to reopen a few months later, expecting more than many parts of the region and status. But almost at the same time, at the end of May 2020, she released Expanded Outdoor Dining Permita measure that it now intends to codify.
Lightfoot has previously signaled his interest in expanding outdoor dining beyond pandemic parameters. In March 2021launched Chicago Alfresco with incentives for restaurants to design “creative outdoor spaces for the long term.” She tweeted at the time: “Last spring, we expanded cookouts out of necessity. Now, we’re 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 cookout program, which is a critical part of Chicago’s vibrant dining scene.
“The expanded permanent outdoor dining program supports small businesses and neighborhoods, as it has since the beginning of its creation,” Commissioner Kenneth Meyer said in a statement.
In the three expanded cookout seasons since 2020, restaurants and bars have built shelters for dining in both hot and cold weather. The winners of a 2021 design contest for winter dinners dreamed heated tables and glass boothsversions of which many implemented during a winter spike in COVID-19 cases as the omicron variant emerged.
Still, some restaurant owners have said the costs of permits and a lack of communication from officials, coupled with fears that roadblocks could turn takeout customers away, create a mixed bag when try to help the end result.
Lakeview was the first neighborhood to test the cookout program in 2020, blocking North Broadway south of Belmont Avenue on the east side of the neighborhood.
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Melissa Bulger, general manager of the bustling and unassuming Stella’s Diner, said closing the corridor is helpful but not crucial. “It doesn’t make a huge difference, but obviously it allows us to seat more people, which is good,” she said Thursday.
In the Lower West Side area, Bacchanalia Ristorante is a family-owned Italian restaurant focused on classic recipes. Paula Pieri, who co-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 inside, so this really helps,” Pieri said.
The restaurant will continue to set up outdoor dining along South Oakley Street for as long as guests feel comfortable enough as the weather cools.
“Unfortunately, we can only take advantage of it while the weather allows it,” Pieri said. “We would love to have those igloos they have at Fulton Market, but they are very expensive.”
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