Many restaurants are eager to restore some semblance of normalcy to the city’s dining scene as officials begin scaling back restrictions triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
But what will the future of dining look like as the threat of COVID-19 still casts a dark cloud over people gathering in confined spaces?
Gov. J.B. Pritzker shared new guidelines Sunday offering a glimpse of what customers can expect when restaurants begin reopening Friday — outside Chicago, anyway. In the city, restaurants won’t be able to reopen until Wednesday.
Regardless of their location, restaurants are limited to outdoor dining and drinking, and only for parties of five people or fewer.
Diners visiting restaurants will first notice signs at entrances explaining new policies like face coverings, social distancing guidelines and cleaning protocols. Those signs can be printed from a toolkit provided by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Salt and pepper shakers and other shared condiments will be removed from tables as will menus, straws and table tents. Tables must be 6 feet apart.
Restaurant staff and customers will be required to wear face masks — patrons are allowed to remove masks only when eating and drinking.
Want a refill? Nope. It’s now expected a new glass will be given each time.
Waiting areas will be obsolete and customers will need to wait for their seats outside or inside their cars.
Illinois Restaurant Association raring to go
Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, applauded the governor for getting Illinois “back to work.”
“While we recognize this is not a solution for every business, we are encouraged by the creative plans in progress by local municipalities to implement measures that will help broaden the opportunities,” Toia said.
Kevin Hickey, chef and owner of Bridgeport’s The Duck Inn, said he is excited at the thought of bringing customers back into his restaurant. The Duck Inn has a large outdoor patio, and Hickey said he is doing his best to ensure the safety of his staff and customers.
Hickey plans to get N95 masks for his staff. The Duck Inn will use disposable menus, and he has already rearranged tables to keep them 6 feet away from each other. A new spaced-out seating arrangement on his outdoor patio has cut capacity from 86 to 44 people.
The restrictions put his restaurant in a precarious position.
“This is also the Midwest, so I can’t depend on the weather,” Hickey said. “How do I manage my inventory and prepare my staff for a busy weekend and then it rains?”
“Our customers are working class, and it’s not really a fancy or luxury place,” said Milton Sumba, owner of Feed, another Chicago restaurant. “We wouldn’t want to gouge their pockets when we are all just doing our best right now.”
It’s vital for Feed, 2803 W. Chicago Ave., to reopen as soon as it can. Sumba hopes its outdoor patio will again be a destination for those looking to unwind with good drinks and food. “We are expecting to have people here eating as soon as we can, and we can’t wait to be able to get our employees back to work,” he said.
The outdoor patio will only be able to serve half of what it used to, which at most is about 20 people.
Different towns, different restrictions
The state’s regulations are a baseline for restaurants; municipalities across the state will have the ability to impose additional restrictions.
On Tuesday, the city of Chicago released its guidelines for restaurants. They mirror state rules. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city isn’t ready to reopen outdoor dining on Friday, but it will happen on June 3.
“COVID-19 is still very much part of our present, I can’t emphasize this enough,” Lightfoot said. “The best we can do, and really the best you can do, is continue following the public health guidance around social distancing, hand sanitizing and, please, wearing a mask in public.”
Many restaurants that don’t have an outdoor patio have hurried to apply for a sidewalk cafe permit so they can begin serving customers in person.
But most of these permits are concentrated on the North Side. Only 4% of the 319 active sidewalk permits are on the South or West sides.
Constance Simms-Kincaid, co-owner of 5 Loaves Eatery at 405 E. 75th St., said she has no interest in applying for the permit and will stick to serving takeout orders. She believes reopening could spell disaster in the months to come.
She’s even more concerned about her community in Chatham.
“I have to be vigilant because we are not only a business, we are a part of the Chatham community, and it’s a hot spot for COVID-19 right now,” Simms-Kincaid said. “I would have liked to have had them show the number of [COVID-19] cases dropping significantly in the black community before reopening.”
As of May 28, ZIP codes that make up Chatham have had more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“I’m curious to see how this is going to play out,” she said.