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Chicago restaurants’ outdoor patios and rooftop gardens can stay open until midnight — when they reopen

Restaurants with outdoor dining spaces are poised to make a comeback as soon as the stay-at-home shackles are lifted. When they do open, that extra hour of business will be all the more important.

An outdoor seating area at a Chicago restaurant.
A City Council committee on Thursday OK’d a proposal to extend hours for outdoor dining areas at restaurants.
Sun-Times file

Whenever the stay-at-home shutdown is lifted in Chicago, restaurants and bars with outdoor patios and sidewalk cafes are likely to open first and be the most popular with people eager to let loose, but safely.

At a virtual meeting Thursday, the City Council’s License Committee turned its attention to those establishments.

At the behest of Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), the License Committee agreed to let downtown Chicago’s outdoor patios and rooftop gardens stay open until midnight this spring, summer and fall — if they’re lucky enough to come back at all.

For years, Reilly has sought that extra hour to accommodate international travelers who love to stay out late. International travel is virtually non-existent and likely to remain a sliver of what it was until there’s a coronavirus vaccine.

But rooftop garden and outdoor patio business is poised for a comeback, as soon as the shackles are lifted, making that extra hour of business all the more important.

“This is an annual exercise. I’m asking members to once again extend these hours to the hospitality industry — assuming that they are back in business in time to use their patios this year. Assuming that folks will eventually be back to work,” Reilly said.

“This is one more way we can support an industry that is struggling terribly right now with the stay-at-home order and all of the measures we are taking to protect public health. … We also need to provide these businesses the ability to make some extra revenue by adding that extra hour during warm weather months.”

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia called the ordinance “a solid move” for a struggling industry and predicted big crowds for outdoor patios and rooftop gardens.

“You can exercise social distancing. They just would be more comfortable out in fresh air than outside,” Toia said.

Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said he, too, supports the extra hour. But like Reilly, Hopkins wants to maintain the annual review to keep noise under control at places like the hotel in his ward that’s “surrounded on all sides by residential condo towers.”

“Bars and restaurants that have patios, that have outdoor spaces, that have cafes and rooftops — they’re going to be doing more business than bars and restaurants that don’t have outdoor spaces because people are just gonna feel more comfortable. It’s generally safer in an outdoor environment right now with an airborne virus still lurking out there,” Hopkins said.

“Given that, we can anticipate bigger crowds on rooftops, which means more noise. We want them to open. We want them to make money. We want the servers to return to their jobs. But that doesn’t mean we can stop trying to keep some peace so the neighbors don’t complain.”

Noise control was also the driving force behind another Hopkins-championed ordinance approved by the License Committee.

For bars and restaurants violating the ban on live or amplified music at outdoor patios and rooftop gardens, the minimum fine would be increased to $400, though the never-imposed maximum would drop to $1,000 from $5,000.

“I had some patios that were getting such a crowd for their outdoor facility with music, they treated the fines as just a cost of doing business. They had such a good thing going, they said, ‘We’ll just keep violating it and paying the fines.’ I had to do something to increase the incentive to not break the rules,” Hopkins said.

“If you’re outside, the chances are much lower that you’re gonna be exposed to the virus. ... In recognition of that, bars are gonna want to market their outdoor spaces — and that’s fine. There’s no reason why they can’t have crowds returning to their patios and rooftops and still be good neighbors.”

The License Committee also approved a Reilly-championed ordinance prohibiting peddling in parts of River North, the Gold Coast and Near North neighborhoods.

Reilly said the ordinance addresses “some chronic issues we’ve had on very specific blocks and streets. ....It’s not a blanket prohibition for the ward. It’s just a handful of corridors.”