An expanded outdoor dining program described as a “life-saver” for Chicago restaurants and bars fighting for survival during the darkest days of the pandemic would be extended for one year under a mayoral plan advanced Thursday amid promises that it would be made permanent.
The City Council’s Transportation Committee agreed to extend — until Dec. 31, 2022 — a program due to expire at year’s end that has allowed 500 restaurants and bars to place tables on sidewalks, in private parking lots and in the street to serve patrons skittish about dining and drinking indoors.
The program was launched in May 2020 at a time when indoor dining was still prohibited in Illinois.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot was trying to make outdoor dining more lucrative by allowing restaurants with sidewalk café permits to set up even more tables.
She started by allowing six commercial corridors to be closed to traffic during designated lunch and dinner hours. Expanded outdoor seating was then offered to bars so long as they had a “food partner” that would deliver food to outdoor drinking customers.
Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said the city ultimately issued 351 location permits that provided a “vital lifeline” to 500 different restaurants and bars. Forty-two of those permitted location are “still active.”
Biagi said she plans to use lessons learned in different neighborhoods to shape a permanent program she hopes to present to the City Council by spring.
“It’s worked differently in different neighborhoods. And we have some issues with making sure the public way is managed really well [and] with some of the [outdoor dining] structures. This has almost been like a laboratory for us to figure out,” Biagi told alderpersons.
Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said he wants to make sure the more permanent program gets “rolled out to as many neighborhoods as possible.”
He specifically mentioned Jefferson Park, Rogers Park, Chatham, Morgan Park, Pullman and Little Village as neighborhoods that “reached out to us and felt they weren’t part of the program” because of the bureaucratic hoops that restaurants and bars had to jump through.
“You had to get the local chamber and the local alderman on board to close streets. You’ve got to work with Business Affairs and CDOT. Some restaurant owners get turned off because now, they’re going to two different departments,” Toia said.
Another impediment was narrow sidewalks, Toia said.
“Take 26th Street in the 22nd Ward. Their sidewalks are not as large as they are in Lake View. There, we may need to talk about closing car lanes. Not closing the whole street, but going out x-amount of feet into the street because the sidewalks are not that wide,” he said.
With at least some of those changes, Toia said he’s hopeful the permanent program could serve at least 1,000 restaurants, instead of 500.
“It was big. Restaurant owners and operators reported they had a great summer because they had indoor and outdoor dining with more seats. The more seats you have, the more customers you can serve and the better the cash flow,” he said.
“For the 500 restaurants that did do the outdoor dining, it was a life-saver.”
West Side Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) welcomed Biagi’s pledge to make the program permanent.
“It is necessary — especially because COVID isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And even when it does subside, there’s still going to be hesitancy going inside,” Scott said.
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said the hardships of the pandemic forced the city to learn an important lesson.
“We can create new experiences and the sky hasn’t fallen with those changes. We end up with a better Chicago,” Vasquez said.