Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping package of protections to help Chicago businesses and consumers bounce back from the economic devastation created by the coronavirus pandemic.
The kitchen sink of an initiative she calls “Chi Biz Strong” includes everything from financial and regulatory relief for businesses to an umbrella of protections for consumers and new job opportunities for ex-offenders.
“Our businesses and workers have experienced a helluva year. Numerous challenges ... brought on by the pandemic and the economic meltdown that followed. Making it all the more important that we step up, work together and address these challenges with an equal number of solutions,” Lightfoot told a City Hall news conference after Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
More than a year of pain and hardship has proven that, “the way we typically do business does not work” for everyone, the mayor said. The pair of ordinances she introduced — one nearly 100 pages long — are tailor-made to fix that problem.
“This isn’t just my administration’s vision for Chicago’s recovery. It’s the vision for our employees and our employers. ... This policy reflects the realities on the ground [for] people in these communities who need us to continue drastic measures to support them,” the mayor said.
On Tuesday, the Sun-Times disclosed the mayor’s plan to require third-party food delivery services to collect and remit Chicago’s restaurant tax and extend the 15% cap on delivery fees until 180 days after all pandemic-related restrictions on restaurants are repealed.
The Sun-Times also disclosed that the city would relax restrictions on sidewalk sandwich boards and overhaul licensing and permitting to make it easier for restaurants to open.
However, the package Lightfoot introduced Wednesday goes a whole lot further than that. The sweeping plan includes:
• Authorizing $10 million in “targeted grants” for businesses hit hardest by the pandemic, along with a “discounted payments plan” for businesses in debt.
• Extending the life of Chicago taxicabs from seven to 10 years for standard vehicles and from 10 to 15 years for fuel-efficient taxis. City Hall estimates the longer life will result in “expanding the pool of eligible taxicabs” by 20%, saving the dying industry as much as $20 million this year alone.
• Paving the way for “low-speed” three- and four-wheel electric vehicles to carry passengers for hire, provided they travel at speeds not exceeding 30 mph, carry no more than 10 passengers and steer clear of downtown streets during morning and evening rush periods. The rules for charter buses would also be revamped to make it easier for buses carrying large groups of tourists and visitors to Chicago to operate.
• Eliminating barriers that have made it impossible for non-violent ex-offenders to drive public vehicles or enter the hospitality industry. For example, minor cannabis offenses would no longer prevent someone from obtaining a livery license.
• Shaving up to three weeks from the time it takes for new restaurants to get licenses to open in spaces occupied by previously shuttered establishments and up to two months off the 150-day wait for business permits, signs and awnings. No longer would a separate ordinance be required for each public way permit.
• Authorizing both delivery and carryout of cocktails-to-go while ending alcohol sales from liquor and other stores licensed to sell “packaged goods” at 10 p.m. That makes permanent a mayoral security curfew implemented during the pandemic.
Lightfoot said the 10 p.m. curfew is a direct response to “loitering, other illegal activity” around liquor stores she claimed “aren’t being good actors.”
“We’re trying to be responsive to the quality of life issues that many neighborhoods have flagged for us. Many aldermen have flagged for us....This didn’t just drop out of the sky,” the mayor said.
“We expect that there will be a robust debate and discussion. But, there’s a real issue that absolutely can’t be ignored.”
• A first-ever “wage-theft” ordinance to help Chicago’s most vulnerable workers recoup what City Hall pegs at “up to $400 million in wages stolen” from them every year by “bad-faith employers.”
• Requiring anyone who hires a “domestic worker” to enter into a written contract to pay that employee a minimum wage of at least $15-an-hour. The minimum wage would also apply to chain business workers by preventing employers “within a single unitary business group from undercounting their employees.”
• Revamping Chicago’s paid sick leave ordinance to include “caring for a family member with a closed place of care, classroom or school.” The revised ordinance would also cover mental and behavior health and “future public health orders.”
Lightfoot had vowed last summer to lead a “second Chicago renaissance” by following a roadmap to recovery from the economic devastation created by the coronavirus pandemic and the stay-at-home shutdown it triggered.
Lightfoot declared on that July day that the pandemic and the systemic vulnerabilities that forced Black and Hispanic Chicagoans to bear the brunt of it had provided a “once in a generation opportunity” to create a “new economic model based on dynamic, inclusive growth.”
She promised to seize that opportunity by following the blueprint she proudly unveiled during a highly orchestrated news conference — complete with videos — fit for a COVID-19 Recovery Task Force with more than 200 members and contributors.
“If we do this right — and I’m committed to making sure that we do — this will be the kind of transformation that, generations from now, we’ll be talking about as the second Chicago renaissance. … If we do this right, people are gonna be coming to Chicago to say, ‘What happened? How did the Chicago renaissance start?’” the mayor said.
The package unveiled Wednesday appears to deliver on that bold pledge. Now, it’s time for Chicago aldermen who must approve the package to comb through the nitty-gritty details.
“I welcome a healthy debate and a negotiation of the important topics that are before us. We need to do this together. But, we need to do this quickly because our business community and our workers cannot wait,” said Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno.