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Lightfoot hints at street closures to help restaurants serve diners, people get around

“People are itching to get outside. Businesses are looking at creative ways to serve customers. The key is how we do it,” the mayor tweeted Friday.

A woman pushes a stroller on a recently added sidewalk next to Gibsons Bar and Restaurant, 1028 N. Rush St.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot is promising some changes to streets and sidewalks. Could it be outdoor dining?
Sun-Times file

Is Mayor Lori Lightfoot planning to close streets and sidewalks so restaurants can safely reopen for diners and residents can have a place to run, walk and play? Sure sounds like it.

“People are itching to get outside. Businesses are looking at creative ways to serve customers. The key is how we do it,” the mayor tweeted Friday.

“Stay tuned for some changes to our streets and sidewalks. Transportation is more than just cars. We’ll show how Chicago can be safer and easier to get around.”

Last week, Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia urged Gov. J.B. Pritzker to relax his five-step plan to reopen Illinois by allowing restaurants to open at 25% of capacity beginning June 1 with strict safeguards for restaurant employees, including face masks and daily temperature checks.

At the time, Toia teased the street closing idea as a way to “think outside the box.”

He said he was talking to the mayor about “maybe closing some streets for outside dining with the tables on the street” so outdoor tables could be at least six feet apart and patrons can maintain social distance.

Closed streets in Tampa, Cincinnati

On Friday, Toia put even more meat on the bone.

He noted that Tampa and Cincinnati have already closed streets for safe outdoor dining and that Chicago should do the same to let restaurants generate some level of income, even if they are forced to remain closed to inside dining during the month of June.

“Maybe we close some side streets and let these restaurants move some tables onto the streets. We have customers come to the restaurants, but the streets are closed so all the tables are six feet apart,” Toia said.

“Also throughout the city, there are some restaurants that have little side parking lots. Maybe they can use the side parking lots to do outdoor dining.”

Toia acknowledged there are a lot of details to be worked out, including the impact on CTA buses and parking meters that, if taken out of service, require compensation to the consortium that leased the meters.

But, if those details can be ironed out, it could pave the way for street closures across the city.

“We could go from Pilsen to Hyde Park to Logan Square to Andersonville to Lakeview to Little Village. There’s quite a few neighborhoods that have a lot of restaurants and could expand their outdoor cafes onto the street or, at least, onto those bus lanes or bike lanes,” Toia said.

The mayor’s office offered no additional guidance when asked what exactly Lightfoot meant by her tantalizing tweet. Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi retweeted Lightfoot with her own requests for Chicagoans to send their suggestions to covidmobility@cityofchicago.org.

Neighborhood by neighborhood

During a Facebook live session last week with Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, Biagi said the city would take a measured approach to street closings.

“If you look at a city like Oakland that closed some 70 miles of residential streets, that sounds great. But the way we like to plan in Chicago is being really attuned to each individual neighborhood,” Biagi said.

Noting that housing patterns and open space vary across the city, she said, “If a neighborhood is raising their hand and experiencing some issues, we have lots of tools and we are happy to talk about how we can apply them.”

“A mayoral appointee to the Zoning Board of Appeals, Toia said Lightfoot is “looking at everything and trying to be as pragmatic as she can.” She’s still talking with her department heads “to see what can work and what cannot work,” he said.

“We’re trying get restaurants to be part of Phase 3. Because Phase 4 is when the governor said we can open with partial seating inside restaurants,” Toia said.

Could help walkers, bikers

For the Active Transportation Alliance, the emphasis is on “creating more safe space for people walking on crowded sidewalks” and biking in protected bike lanes, said spokesman Kyle Whitehead.

“The city needs to be exploring and implementing a range of things, which may include limiting traffic on residential streets so that people walking and biking feel more safe and comfortable,” Whitehead said.

“There also should include changes to arterial streets, where people are biking and may not feel safe. It definitely should include changes to make transit safer and more reliable. Space on sidewalks for people to wait for the bus. Making sure there’s space dedicated to the bus on the street so that bus service is fast and more reliable.”