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Chicagoans begin to consider the possibilities of life beyond COVID-19

Almost all coronavirus restrictions were lifted Friday in the city and state.

Anthony Brown lounges on the Riverwalk in the loop, Friday, June 11, 2021.
Anthony Brown couldn’t hide his excitement for what lies ahead in Chicago now that the worst of the pandemic may be over.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chris Gideon sat with his partner in one of the city’s tiniest breakfast spots Friday morning — a place they would have been “very hesitant” to step inside a few months ago — and considered a world of new possibilities.

“It feels really, really, really good,” said Gideon, 22, finishing up breakfast with Lexi Faulkner, 23, at Famous Dutch Pancake Huis - Pannenkoeken Cafe on the North Side.

He said he’s considering going to a bar to play pool later Friday — “something that seems kind of new and really exciting.”

The popular breakfast spot has just seven tables, all squeezed together in a 680-square-foot dining room. Out of respect for COVID-19 “etiquette,” Gideon and Faulkner wore masks but quickly took them off, realizing they had little to fear; both are vaccinated.

A collective sense of relief, even joy, rippled through breakfast joints, gyms, bars and restaurants, as the city opened up Friday, finally doing away with almost all coronavirus restrictions that had been in place for so many months.

But the city’s new-found freedom didn’t erase the pain of the recent past.

“Psychologically, it was difficult to come in and put on a happy face and just feel confident things were going to be OK,” said Pannenkoeken’s owner, Linda Ellis. “It wasn’t OK. It was tough. ... I thought we were going to close our doors, actually. We barely stayed afloat.”

Ellis said she had to lay off half of her staff during the worst of the pandemic. And even when the restaurant was allowed to reopen after the initial lockdown, customers would sometimes come into the cramped space, then quickly leave.

“We could hear them saying, ‘Oh no, we’re not comfortable with this,’” Ellis said.

Now, Ellis is cautiously optimistic.

“I feel hopeful,” she said.

Linda Ellis stands outside her North Side breakfast joint, Famous Dutch Pancake Huis - Pannenkoeken Cafe.
Owner Linda Ellis outside Famous Dutch Pancake Huis - Pannenkoeken Cafe.
Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Anthony Brown, 30, was reclining in a shady spot along the Riverwalk Friday morning. He’d just been on a 2-mile jog with a buddy, and hadn’t given too much thought to the big reopening — in part because he’s been enjoying the outdoors so much.

But Brown couldn’t hide his excitement for what lies ahead in Chicago, now that it appears the worst of the pandemic may be over.

“It’s the best city in the world — especially during spring and summer. So I definitely feel it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s an exciting time. A lot of the stuff you can do in Chicago — it looks like we’ll have access to after this weekend,” Brown said.

The Target at 6525 W. Diversey Ave. reopened its fitting rooms for customers, and it was very much appreciated.

“I’m glad I can finally try something on first and then buy it instead of guessing my size,” Veronica Torres said. “You know how many things I had to return over the last year?”

Still, other retailers kept restrictions in place with floor decals to direct traffic flow in aisles, fitting rooms still off-limits and signs at their front doors advertising the max occupancy during the pandemic.

The Chicago Archdiocese eased most pandemic restrictions Friday to coincide with the city’s and state’s reopening.

“It’s nice. ... No more signing in and all that,” Pell Aguada said after attending midday Mass at Holy Name Cathedral of Friday.

Pell Aguada is a parishioner of St. William Catholic Church but was at Holy Name for her daughter’s 21st birthday.

Aliza Aguada said going to church is a family tradition and she’s glad she can go again.

“As soon as they said, ‘We’re opening back up,’ we started going back right away,” Aliza Aguada said.

Marvin Washington poses for a portrait at Blues Barber Shop at 1376 E 53rd St in Hyde Park, Friday, June 11, 2021.
Marvin Washington at Blues Barber Shop in Hyde Park
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Marvin Washington cuts hair at Blues Barber Shop in Hyde Park — and has done so for 30 years.

“I cut every texture of hair on the planet Earth,” he said.

But a lot less during the lean months of the pandemic.

“I have other talents. I do little construction side jobs in order to keep the bills paid and keep some groceries in the house,” Washington said.

Even though he wasn’t trimming their hair, Washington checked in on customers, some of whom he’s known for 20 years.

“Whole entire families. You start cutting grandpa and their sons and their sons’ sons,” he said.

He said five of his clients died from the coronavirus.

Business is finally picking up again, he said.

“We’re getting a lot of walk-ins today, a lot of people who have enormous beards, the long hair ...,” he said with a chuckle. “We’re kind of transforming people back into themselves.”

Renee Labrana (left) and Sandra Carter co-own Jarvis Square Tavern, 1502 W Jarvis Ave, Friday afternoon. They bought the tavern in mid-August of 2020, during the pandemic.
Renee Labrana (left) and Sandra Carter co-own Jarvis Square Tavern, 1502 W. Jarvis Ave. They bought the tavern in August.
Zinya Salfiti / Chicago Sun-Times

Renee Labrana owns R Public House, 1508 W.Jarvis Ave. and she and Sandra Carter co-own Jarvis Square Tavern, next door at 1502 W. Jarvis.

“Part of me is so sick of everything being shut down and the way things have gone. And part of me is frightened to see there’s still a lot of people that aren’t vaccinated out there,” said Labrana, 55, who lives in Rogers Park.

Labrana said R Public House will stay at 50% indoor capacity for now, because they are short on staff, but Jarvis Square Tavern will operate at full capacity.

“We’re not quite going to stay open past midnight to start, because they’re just starting the things going on where people are out later than that, so we’ll play it by ear,” she said.

In Wrigleyville, Sluggers bartender Monika Lupo said it was refreshing to see people’s smiles and to hear their orders more clearly.

“This is the first day that we’ve opened back up fully, and we finally have stools behind the bar,” said Lupo. “Today’s a great day.”

Sluggers co-owner Zach Strauss, whose father opened the bar on Clark Street 36 years ago, said the pandemic restrictions took a toll on the bar.

“It was hard because we are the opposite of social distancing. We weren’t allowed to have dancing or have live music,” Strauss said.

“I’ve been here since day one, through the highs and the lows. And [the pandemic] was definitely the lowest,” he said. “But we had no choice but to make it work, so my brothers and I worked all the way through it. ... This day is wonderful.”

Owner Steve Krater at O’Leary’s Public House at 541 N Wells in River North, Friday, June 11, 2021.
Steve Krater, owner of O’Leary’s Public House, which endured both the lockdown as well as last year’s looting. Four other bars nearby closed, and he considered it. “We just hoped it would get better. It did, and it has. We’re lucky to survive.”
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Steve Krater, who owns O’Leary’s Public House in River North, endured both the lockdown as well as looting during the protests in June 2020.

“It was a horrible mess,” Krater said. “Every window was broken. They ripped out the ATM. I found that in the middle of the street.”

Krater said he put up tents with heaters — something that helped his bar “get through the winter, limping along, barely surviving.”

He said he thought about closing for good. Four other bars nearby did just that.

“We thought about it from time to time. We just hoped it would get better. It did, and it has. We’re lucky to survive,” he said.

He said he’s excited for the summer season.

“People are ready,” Krater said. “A lot of people are going to be out today. It was really busy last night. People are out with their dogs and they have a beer. They’re not as apprehensive as they used to be. ... Hopefully this is the end. Hopefully, we don’t go backwards.”

As the sun started to go down on the city’s first reopened day, the lakefront remained crowded, and many museums there stayed open late in celebration.

Among those at the Shedd Aquarium was Jesse Diaz, who said he had been thrilled when he learned the city was moving to reopen.

“Most of the attractions I’ve been going to around the city were like semi-open and that was a bummer,” Diaz said. “With everything opening back up I can start doing things with my friends.”

Alannie Melendez (left) and Jesse Diaz visited the Shedd Aquarium during its extended hours the night of Friday, June 11, 2021.
Alannie Melendez (left) and Jesse Diaz visited the Shedd Aquarium during its extended hours Friday night.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The first thing Diaz did was take Alannie Melendez out on a date. The pair toured the aquarium and capped the evening off looking at the city’s skyline from the Shedd’s terrace. Musicians performed soft jazz, adding to the ambiance.

“I think I’m excited to finally be comfortable to be out in public especially with the vaccine out,” Melendez said. “It’s giving me a bigger chance of hope.”

The two are still haven’t gotten used to walking around indoors without a mask.

“It’s like looking at people and like ‘Oh God, you have a face,’” Melendez joked.

Some visiting the Shedd still sported masks. Kids gawked at the sea creatures and ran from tank to tank.

Dana Holgerson and Thor Tobiassen were also on a date at the Shedd.

“We’ve been spending like 15 minutes reading all of the bios and background on the animals and it’s been so much fun,” Tobiassen said. “Like our favorite is Nickel [a green sea turtle] and we now know he swims the way he does because he survived being hit by a boat. He’s so cool.”

For Holgerson, being able to leave her teaching job and spend the evening learning things she doesn’t know is always a good time.

“I’m just glad we can plan things last-minute, hang out for a bit and not spend more time doing nothing,” Holgerson said. “This has been such a great night.”

People enjoy extended hours at the Shedd Aquarium, Friday, June 11, 2021.
People enjoy extended hours at the Shedd Aquarium on Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times