A pandemic that wreaked havoc on restaurants might also have produced a silver lining — at least that’s the hope of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot as she moves to make permanent the outdoor dining provisions prompted by COVID-19.
Lightfoot has introduced a proposal to formalize, without an end date, the rules that allowed eligible eateries to set up tables on the roadways in front of their establishments, limiting traffic lanes or closing portions of some streets entirely to traffic.
Those rules, introduced in 2020 and twice extended 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 dining onto the street from May 1 to Oct. 31. Those with sidewalks too narrow for a sidewalk cafe would be able to put seating in curb lanes, and groups of three or more businesses would be able to apply for full street closures.
The plan, which must pass the City Council, “incorporates feedback and lessons learned from the past two years to allow eligible restaurants to continue to responsibly operate on the roadway immediately in front of or adjacent to their establishment,” a city news release said.
“I’m pleased that Chicago is now building upon the success of this program and establishing long-term ways to support our hospitality and dining industries with inviting dining spaces throughout our neighborhoods,” Lightfoot said in the release.
After the abrupt shutdown of indoor dining in March 2020, some restaurants pivoted to curbside pickup or even grocery deliveries, but many couldn’t survive and shut down 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 signaled her interest in expanding outdoor dining beyond pandemic parameters. In March 2021, she launched Chicago Alfresco with incentives for restaurants to design “creative long-term outdoor spaces.” She tweeted at the time: “Last spring, we expanded outdoor dining 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 outdoor dining program, which is a fundamental part of Chicago’s vibrant dining scene.
“The permanent Expanded Outdoor Dining program supports small businesses and neighborhoods, as it has done from the beginning of its creation,” Commissioner Kenneth Meyer said in a release.
In the three seasons of expanded outdoor dining since 2020, restaurants and bars have constructed shelters for dining in both warm weather and cold. Winners of a 2021 design contest for winter dining dreamed up heated tables and glass cabins, versions of which many put into place during a winter spike in COVID-19 cases as the omicron variant surged.
Still, some restaurant owners have said permit costs and a lack of communication from officials, coupled with fears the roadblocks could drive away takeout customers, make for a mixed bag when it comes to helping the bottom line.
Lakeview was the first neighborhood to test out the outdoor dining program in 2020, blocking off North Broadway south of Belmont Avenue on the neighborhood’s east side.
Melissa Bulger, general manager of the bustling, no-frills-needed Stella’s Diner, said closing the corridor is helpful but not crucial. “It doesn’t make a massive 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 for business.
“Some older people are still skeptical of eating inside, so this really helps,” Pieri said.
The restaurant will continue to set up outdoor eating along South Oakley Street while guests remain comfortable enough as the weather chills.
“Unfortunately, we can only take advantage while weather permits,” Pieri said. “We’d love to have those igloos that they have on Fulton Market, but they are so expensive.”
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