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Navy Pier to close until next spring as crowds dwindle amid COVID-19 pandemic

The lakefront tourist attraction will shut down Sept. 8. The clout-heavy not-for-profit that runs it got nearly $2.5 million in federal coronavirus stimulus money.

Navy Pier, which will close on Sept. 8 to minimize its losses, is seen in this photo Tuesday morning, Aug. 18, 2020.
Navy Pier officials said Tuesday the lakefront attraction will close Sept. 8 and will not reopen until next spring.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

With attendance down to a trickle due to the coronavirus pandemic, the operator of Chicago’s Navy Pier said Tuesday the lakefront attraction will close Sept. 8 and will not reopen until next spring.

The decision means more than 70 businesses that operate at the pier must close. Major attractions such as the Ferris wheel and the Chicago Children’s Museum already are closed.

Marilynn Gardner, chief executive officer of Navy Pier Inc., the private, not-for-profit company that runs the pier under a $1-a-year contract with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, said the attraction is facing a $20 million deficit this year because of lost business due to COVID-19. The pier closed March 16 and reopened June 10 but has seen summer attendance at less than 20% of normal rates.

“While this was a very difficult decision for the organization, it was a necessary one to proactively ensure the longterm success of one of Chicago’s most treasured and important civic institutions and the communities it serves,” Gardner said. “This decision will also help preserve the future of the many on-site businesses, which continue to face hardships of their own as a result of the pandemic. The temporary closure will allow the Pier and its partners to reduce its operational expenses and support efforts to limit COVID-19 cases as we move into the fall and winter seasons.”

Cory Jobe, the pier’s vice president of communications, said public access to Polk Bros. Park at the facility’s western end will continue but that the north and south docks will be closed.

He declined to give a possible date for reopening, saying, “We’re at the mercy of the pandemic.”

The clout-heavy Navy Pier Inc. got nearly $2.5 million in coronavirus stimulus money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. It previously has said the money went toward expenses and the salaries of 147 employees, including that of Gardner, whose salary, bonus and other compensation totaled $541,051 in 2018, according to records the company filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Gardner has taken a 44% pay cut, Jobe said, and other top staffers have taken furlough days. He said the agency laid off 20% of its administrative and construction trades staffers early in the pandemic along with 40% of seasonal workers and is looking at additional cuts.

Legal restrictions on layoffs involving jobs tied to PPP money expire Oct. 1.

Some operations at the pier could open sooner than the overall facility.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which operates at the pier, said Tuesday it will move ahead with plans to reopen in early 2021 as soon as it can safely do that.

“Navy Pier has committed to partnering with the theater to ensure a seamless experience for Chicago Shakespeare patrons during this closure,” executive director Criss Henderson said.

“Everything we do will be predicated on the safety of our audiences,” Henderson said.

The theater is announcing its lineup for 2021 next week, which Henderson said will be an in-person and online hybrid using all three of its performance spaces.

Jobe said developers of the pier’s first hotel have expressed interest in a November opening regardless of whether other attractions are open. The 222-room hotel is to be part of Hilton’s Curio Collection brand.

“If the hotel’s developers see a need to open in winter and in a pandemic, we will accommodate that,” Jobe said.

Robert Habeeb, chief executive officer of Maverick Hotels & Restaurants, the Chicago developer of the property, said crews are working toward a Nov. 1 opening. He said starting a hotel at an empty pier might be something he must do to meet requirements of his franchise and loan agreements.

“We’re looking into that right now,” Habeeb said.

Navy Pier Inc.’s projected $20 million deficit compares to last year’s $60 million in revenue. More than 80% of the money it makes is tied to tourism, which has been severely reduced by the pandemic and travel curbs. Those sources include attractions such as the Ferris wheel, rent from tenants, parking and events.

Asked whether the deficit will end up deeper than $20 million, Jobe said, “That’s what we are projecting at the moment.”

Navy Pier Inc. said it has given rent relief to tenants in hopes they can return.

Contributing: Miriam Di Nunzio