Bleaker-than-ever picture for Illinois restaurants

At least 20% of the state’s 24,000 restaurants “will never reopen,” said Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia. Statewide, 321,000 restaurant employees have been laid off, and 86% of restaurants are “unlikely” to turn a profit within six months.

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Workers paint tables on the riverwalk to prepare for outdoor dining on June 12, 2020. The riverwalk reopened after Mayor Lori Lightfoot had closed the riverwalk in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Workers paint tables on the riverwalk to prepare for outdoor dining in June.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia on Wednesday painted a bleaker-than-ever picture of a restaurant industry decimated by the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and thrown for a loop yet again by two rounds of looting.

In a virtual address to the City Club of Chicago, Toia ticked off devastating statistics telling the heartbreaking story of restaurant owners who are “barely hanging on” now — and will have trouble doing even that when warm weather ends and outdoor dining isn’t possible:

• Restaurant sales are down 80% across the board — even with 25% indoor capacity—and at least 20% of Illinois’ 24,000 restaurants “will never reopen.”

• The statewide restaurant industry has laid off or furloughed 321,000 employees, 54% of its total workforce.

• 86% of restaurant operators say they are “unlikely” to turn a profit within the next six months.

Restaurants suffered yet another devastating blow this week when a second round of looting swept through downtown, River North and Lincoln Park. Toia said windows were “shattered,” dining rooms “left in shambles” and food and beverages stolen.

Toia also talked about the “elephant in the room”: colder weather that will take outdoor dining, which has been a life raft for restaurants, off the table. 

“When outdoor dining is no longer doable, we could really be in trouble,” Toia said.

“We need to get to a place in Chicago — similar to the state of Illinois — where occupancy is determined by social distancing and six feet between tables, not just 25%. But, we have work to do collectively to get these COVID numbers back down and build on the reopening progress.”

Toia said he’s lobbying hard for another round of federal help. He’s also working with the city and state on “creative” ways to make the most of outdoor dining beyond putting tables in the street and adjacent parking lots.

“Tents, heaters, bubbles, expanded footprints — whatever it takes,” Toia said.

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