Suburbs poised to begin outdoor dining before city: Social distancing on Gov. Pritzker’s menu
“We have to pray for June to be dry,” said Richard Holleb, co-owner of Norton’s, a popular restaurant known as the “Cheers” of Highland Park, at 1905 Sheridan Rd.
Dining outdoors is back, starting as soon as Friday in many Chicago suburbs, ahead of the city in planning for cash-starved restaurants to reopen in this COVID-19 era.
“We have to pray for June to be dry,” said Richard Holleb, co-owner of Norton’s, a popular restaurant regarded as the “Cheers” of Highland Park, at 1905 Sheridan Rd.
On Sunday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker gave Norton’s — well known for its charbroiled burgers and salads — and thousands of other Illinois restaurants the green light to allow outdoor dining.
Pritzker eased shut-down restrictions for 10 suffering industries including restaurants, issuing detailed guidelines for employers, staff and customers to prevent the spread of coronavirus infections.
“Applications for outdoor dining will be available from the city of Highland Park on Wednesday,” Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering told the Chicago Sun-Times on Sunday, shortly after Pritzker released the guidelines.
NEW NORMAL: FLEXIBLE STREETSCAPES
Creating at least six feet of social distancing space between tables is key to the new normal in outdoor dining — an enormous advantage for some Chicago’s suburbs.
More tables mean more money — so restaurants need lots more space for proper spacing.
When restaurants are allowed to offer inside dining once again, the seating capacity will be vastly diminished. Outdoors is potentially different.
A new streetscape will be emerging, as suburbs are willing to let restaurants place tables on public land near their eateries. That means closing roads or using parks or public plazas or allowing restaurants to set up tables on parking spaces.
Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Chicago won’t be ready for outdoor dining until early June.
Unlike the suburbs, Chicago has a vexing parking meter problem which vastly complicates letting city restaurants put tables on many city streets.
Unless the deal is revised, the city will have to pay the private group leasing the meters to the city for lost compensation.
The “nimble” suburbs “are far better situated than the city to be able to explore and understand and design things that are unique to its communities,” said attorney Steven Elrod. His firm, Elrod Friedman LLC, represents Glencoe, Highland Park, Kenilworth, Lake Bluff, Lincolnwood, Northbrook, Deerfield, Winnetka, LaGrange and Warrenville and has been working with those municipalities so they can move quickly on restaurant outdoor dining plans.
Elrod added, in the suburbs “the geography is different. Many of the restaurants in the suburbs have off-street parking already,” land that can be converted to outdoor dining.
The village of Arlington Heights already approved an outdoor dining plan for its downtown restaurants dubbed “Arlington Al Fresco.” Parts of Vail Avenue and Campbell Street will be closed to vehicles so restaurants can add tables.
Mayor Thomas Hayes told the Sun-Times on Friday that the “Al Fresco” plan could kick off on June 1 or early that week.
On Tuesday, the Northbrook Village Board will vote on an outdoor dining program designed to relax a series of rules to help its restaurants offer outdoor dining.
Rotering said Highland Park may consider a “street share” because retail businesses need daytime curbside access for its customers. Street closings could take place “for the dinner hour.”
Holleb and his partner, Jeff Mages, both restaurant industry veterans, opened Norton’s 21 years ago this July.
Holleb and Mages at first kept Norton’s open for carryout and delivery; they totally closed on March 22, worried about the health of their staff.
Norton’s reopened May 9 with curbside carryout and delivery service. Business is about 25% of its pre-COVID-19 days.
Holleb said Norton’s could not have survived this long without a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. The PPP loan allowed Norton’s to keep its 22 employees on the payroll. If used as intended, mainly to meet payroll and cover some business costs, the PPP loan turns into a grant.
For the May 9 relaunch, the partners purchased — and this is a partial list — 2,000 masks for Norton’s staffers; five cases of hand sanitizers; three cases of disinfectant sanitizing wipes; and “cases and cases of gloves.”
Everything is continually being sanitized.
In anticipation of outdoor dining, Holleb said he bought “thousands” of plastic cutlery kits. Bottles of ketchup and mustard on the table will be eliminated as well as salt and pepper shakers.
Norton’s will have hand sanitizers on each table. Holleb said he will be printing 4,000 one-use disposable menus.
That’s all in line with the “Phase 3 Restore Illinois” outdoor dining guidelines Pritzker released Sunday.
What’s left to do, Holleb said, is work out a plan with Highland Park to find new space to add tables.
Warm weather outdoor dining could bring Norton’s business up another 10% — and that’s if it does not rain a lot.
Looking ahead to reopening the inside of the restaurant — that could be months away — on Wednesday, Norton’s installed two new medical grade air filtration and disinfection systems, Holleb said.
Said Holleb, “Outdoor seating is not the panacea. We’re going to have to open up indoors sooner or later.”