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Not so fast: Chicago restaurants won’t be ready to reopen for outdoor dining on May 29, mayor says

“We’re close. But, we’re not there yet,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at a Thursday news conference.  “I don’t think we’re gonna be ready by May 29. But, my hope is that soon in June, we will be ready.”

An outdoor seating area at a Chicago restaurant.
Chicago likely won’t be ready to reopen restaurants, even in a limited way, by May 29, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday.
Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is allowing Illinois restaurants to open for outdoor dining on May 29. But Chicago won’t be taking advantage of it — not yet, at least.

“I don’t think we’re gonna be ready by May 29. But my hope is that soon in June, we will be ready,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday.

Lightfoot said there’s “nothing magic about” May 29. It’s the date Pritzker’s statewide stay-at-home order expires. But Chicago “has its own responsibilities and obligations to craft public health policies that are specific to the city.”

“I was heartened by the comments that the governor made … about restaurants. But we’ve got to do it safely. I need to understand and be certain that restaurants across the city — not just the big ones, not just the ones that have a lot of cash flow, but the small ones, too — have a means to protect their employees and members of the public that will patronize them,” Lightfoot said.

The mayor said she’s working on plans to make outdoor dining more lucrative by closing streets and sidewalks and allowing restaurants to set up tables in adjacent parking lots. All that takes time to arrange.

It may also require the city to alter CTA bus routes and pay compensation for out-of-service meters to the consortium that famously leased those meters from the city.

“The other piece of it — and this is a conversation we have to have with the state — no restaurant I know of is gonna be able to survive, depending upon what the weather is gonna be like on a particular day in Chicago,” she said.

“Having the opportunity to dine al fresco on a larger scale … is important. But they also need the ability to be [serving customers] inside as well or economically, I don’t think the numbers work.”

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city’s safety mandates to restaurants will run the gamut.

“We’re thinking about what needs to happen structurally in restaurants and other food establishments — everything from face coverings to occupancies to not using the same ketchup bottle,” she said.

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said he’s not disappointed by the mayor’s go-slower approach. He expects Chicago restaurants to lag only “a few days” behind the rest of the state.

“She’s trying to think very outside-the-box in closing streets and bike lanes and bus lanes and using parking lots,” Toia said, noting that the city departments of Health, Transportation and Business Affairs and Consumer Protection are all involved in the elaborate planning.

“I’m not sure we can get of the guidelines for all 77 neighborhoods and Navy Pier out by May 29. It’s just gonna be within a few days after May 29. But there’s a lot of communication going on. A lot of i’s and t’s that have to be crossed. And hopefully, COVID-19 doesn’t spike in that meantime.”

Lightfoot isn’t concerned about Chicagoans itching to dine al fresco taking their business to border towns like Evanston, Oak Park or Evergreen Park.

“I will say the same thing that I tell my 12-year-old: `I don’t care what other people do. You’re my kid.’ I am the mayor of this city. I have a responsibility and an obligation to speak the truth, even when people don’t want to hear it. Even when it’s hard. Because that’s the right thing to do,” the mayor said.

“When I find myself in the circumstance of calling the survivors of people who have died, I don’t want their deaths to be in vain because we are so fixated on a moment of pleasure that it can impact our city for a lifetime.”