Masked servers, spaced-out tables and a lot of fresh air are all on the menu for Illinois’ desperately struggling bars and restaurants, who were moved up the waiting list Wednesday by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to reopen on a limited basis at the end of the month.
Citing improving coronavirus hospitalization numbers, Pritzker announced he’s hastening his reopening plan to allow establishments to serve customers on outdoor patios and in beer gardens in smaller numbers when his extended stay-at-home order expires May 29.
“The experts believe that these services can open at a risk comparable to other outdoor activities and give our hospitality industry a much needed boost, as they work to keep their businesses on their feet,” Pritzker said at a Springfield news briefing.
The Democratic governor said Illinois’ case trend sparked optimism prompting him “to make some modifications to allow more activity” in Phase 3 of his “Restore Illinois” reopening plan, which has drawn fire from Republican state legislators.
That’s even as the state continues to weather what is thought to be the plateau of the pandemic. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 2,388 additional coronavirus cases and 147 more deaths, pushing the overall statewide case tally over 100,000 and the death toll to 4,525. Almost half the deaths have occurred in May alone.
“We are by no means out of the woods. The virus is still causing sickness and taking lives, but directionally, things are getting better,” Pritzker said.
Advancing to the next phase of reopening is still contingent on regions meeting medical benchmarks set by the Pritzker administration. The Northeast region that includes Chicago once again hit those coronavirus testing and hospitalization targets, marking a full week that it has gotten — and stayed — on track to join the rest of the state in advancing to the next stage of Pritzker’s five-phase plan.
Most “non-essential” businesses including salons and barbershops had been slated to reopen with precautions at the end of May. Bars and restaurants initially were held back until Phase 4, but now they’re poised to reopen for outdoor dining only, with tables spaced and no large groups allowed.
Restaurateurs hailed the expedited schedule as a crucial lifeline for an industry decimated by the pandemic — but it’s still not enough to save an estimated 25% of establishments that won’t survive the two-month shutdown.
With more than half the state’s restaurants closed, sales down 80% and more than 321,000 employees out of work, Illinois Restaurant Association president Sam Toia said the announcement of a limited reopening in a little over a week “provides a glimmer of light at the end of this very dark tunnel.”
“The governor’s action to allow for expanded outdoor dining options will be a benefit to many, at a time when every dollar counts,” Toia said. “We recognize that this action will not provide a solution for every operator, but it’s a step in the right direction for restaurants, diners and communities around the state.”
And while the pandemic delayed the kickoff of patio season, al fresco dining might well end up being a staple of the post-COVID-19 world.
“Innovations made to accommodate social distancing and outdoor dining, such as reservations and closing streets to expand seating, may become the new way of life in vibrant downtown districts even after the pandemic ends,” Champaign-Urbana Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said.
Toia agreed that “everyone should wear a mask. Obviously, they need to take their mask off when they’re eating, but when they go to the bathroom, when they leave, they put their mask back on. We’re listening to the scientists and doctors, because the No. 1 thing is, we don’t want to open the economy and then close it again.”
Cooped-up Illinoisans will also get a boost in the next phase of Pritzker’s tweaked reopening plan. All state parks will reopen May 29. Golf courses will be allowed to host foursomes with cars limited to one person or one immediate household. Indoor and outdoor tennis facilities will be able to reopen with precautions and capacity limits in place. And up to 10 people will be allowed to boat or camp together.
Additionally, health clubs and gyms can resume one-on-one personal training indoors, and outdoor fitness classes of 10 people or fewer. And all retail stores will be able to reopen at limited capacities.
Local governments still can “establish stricter restrictions in any areas,” according to Pritzker’s office. The state will soon issue “formal industry-specific guidance, particularly around workplaces and childcare, for business owners and employees in these and other sectors.”