Pritzker urged to let restaurants open June 1 — but at 25% capacity, with employee safeguards

Restaurants can’t afford to wait until June 28 to reopen, as the governor has planned. “The further we go, the harder it is gonna be for restaurants to re-open,” said Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

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A nearly-vacant Starbucks in River Forest, with tables and chairs off-limits.

A nearly-vacant Starbucks in River Forest, with tables and chairs off-limits due to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shutdown order. The Illinois Restaurant Association wants a speeded-up schedule for members to open at one-fourth capacity.

John O’Neill/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker was urged Thursday to relax his five-step plan to re-open Illinois — by allowing restaurants to open at 25% capacity on June 1 with strict safeguards for their employees.

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said without changes, Pritzker’s plan would have a devastating impact on restaurants and bars because it would force them to wait until June 28 at the earliest to re-open to dine-in customers.

Instead, Toia proposed restaurants be allowed to move to Phase 3 on June 1 and relax restrictions every 14 days, instead of waiting 28 days between phases.

“We would have a lot of restrictions. Personal protective equipment. Face coverings. Social distancing. Taking the temperature of employees when they come in to work,” Toia said.

“June 1 is still three weeks away. ... Indiana, Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Tennessee are open. Let’s see if they have a spike. If they do, OK. If they don’t, I would really urge the governor to look at letting us re-open with 25% or less capacity, then use the 14-day model and, hopefully, by mid-June be at 50% capacity.”

Toia acknowledged restaurants operate on razor-thin margins and “economic models don’t work on 25% capacity.”

But, with restaurants literally fighting for survival, he’s willing to take what he can get.

“If we wait until the end of June, it will be 16 weeks that 50% or more of the restaurants in the city of Chicago have been closed and [the other] 50% are 80% down in sales. I don’t think there is any economic model out there that says you can stay in business” in that situation, Toia said.

“The further we go, the harder it is gonna be for restaurants to re-open. The National Restaurant Association is predicting that 20% of the restaurants won’t re-open. That’s basically looking at the end of May. If we go `til the end of June, it could be 45% or more of restaurants that never re-open. And restaurants are the soul of every neighborhood in Chicago,” Toia said.

“The governor understands the desire to open up sectors of our economy as quickly as possible because he shares that same sense of urgency,” said Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s press secretary. But, she added, “the state’s five-phase plan was put together by health experts and lays groundwork for how we move forward with a new normal. From day one, the governor has relied on science and data to drive the response to this deadly virus and staying on this course will continue to save lives.”

The governor’s plan has been criticized for being too conservative, moving too slowly between phases and setting too many hurdles to get there.

Although he divided the state into four regions, each authorized to re-open on its own timeline — based on positive test results, hospital admissions for COVID-19 symptoms and ICU beds and ventilators — no region could move to the next phase without waiting 28 days.

And none could return to normal until there is either a vaccine for the coronavirus or widely available treatment. That means no gatherings larger than 50. No conventions at McCormick Place. No major festivals like Lollapalooza and Taste of Chicago. And no major sporting events with fans in attendance.

Schools, restaurants, bars, movie theaters and gyms would have to wait until Phase 4 — June 28 at the earliest — to open, and even then would have strict limits on capacity.

Business groups and their allies in the Illinois General Assembly are concerned that, by the time various regions meet those hurdles, scores of businesses already will close for good, taking thousands of jobs with them.

That’s Toia’s argument in a nutshell.

“Governor Cuomo has been at the forefront just as much as Governor Pritzker has. But why is New York using a 14-day period to move between phases and we’re using a 28-day period?” he said.

But how willing will customers be to return to restaurant dining?

“If we’re only opening with 25% or less capacity, I think people will come. I don’t think everybody will run out. But enough people will. … It’s all about cash-flow,” Toia said.

A mayoral appointee to the Zoning Board of Appeals, Toia said he has talked to Mayor Lori Lightfoot “and her team” about his plan.

“The mayor wants to see what the governor is gonna do. But the mayor is trying to be very progressive with us. There’s communication going on about maybe closing some streets for outside dining with the tables on the street. That way, we could have social distancing,” Toia said.

“There’s no question that she wants to think outside the box about how we help these restaurants throughout our 77 communities stay viable as we move ahead.”

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