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10 p.m. liquor sales cutoff ‘not written in stone,’ top mayoral aide says

The proposal to permanently cut off liquor sales in retail stores at 10 p.m. has emerged as the most controversial element of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s sweeping pandemic relief package, which was unveiled Wednesday.

Beer on sale in a grocery-store cooler.
Sales of alcohol by stores in Chicago would be cut off at 10 p.m. under a proposal unveiled Wednesday by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to require liquor, grocery and convenience stores to cut off liquor sales at 10 p.m. is “not written in stone,” a top mayoral aide said Thursday, opening the door to pushing back the deadline or eliminating it entirely.

“The hours that are in this package — that is an introduction. … This is a starting point. … This is not a closed door. This is not a done deal,” Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno told the Sun-Times.

“I’m not gonna predict where we land. But it’s definitely gonna be a dialogue and a conversation. … I want to hear the businesses. I embrace what they’re telling me. … But we have to make the issues that our residents are bringing us … central to this conversation.”

At an unrelated news conference Thursday, Lightfoot said she, too, is willing to “work with” liquor and convenience store owners “to see where we can reach an accommodation.”

But she added: “They’ve got to … be better actors in these communities. Nobody should suffer because of liquor sales that stretch into the early morning hours that then become a real magnet for problems in neighborhoods.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) agrees their should be some flexibility.

“My preference would be to use our administrative tools to crack down on bad actors and hopefully, perhaps, negotiate on the closure hour,” Reilly said.

Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said he hopes to land at “something far closer to their original licensure,” which is a 2 a.m. closing time.

“We engaged in an agreed rollback [to 9 p.m.] at their request, allegedly to help with COVID. There’s no data that we’ve seen yet to justify why we need to move it” permanently to 10 p.m., Karr said.

The 10 p.m. cutoff has emerged as the most controversial element of the mayor’s sweeping pandemic relief package.

Escareno initially told the Sun-Times on Thursday that sales of cocktails-to-go by restaurants and bars also would end at 10 p.m.

“There’s a Frank Sinatra song about Chicago — that toddling town Billy Sunday can’t shut down. That is the character of our city. We are not Wheaton,” said Pat Doerr, managing director of the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago.

He urged Lightfoot to steer clear of “sweeping, industry-wide measures” that change “the character of our city known world-wide.” Crack down on “problem individual licensees” instead, he said.

Within an hour of the interview, however, the Sun-Times got a “clarifying email” from Isaac Reichman, spokesman for Escareno’s department: “The 10 p.m. cutoff would not apply to cocktails-to-go, since they are not sold from package good stores.”

Yet another political flashpoint is the mayor’s plan to shave up to two months off the 150-day wait for business permits, signs and awnings. No longer would a separate ordinance be required for each public way permit.

That tramples on aldermanic turf. But, Escareno said, “This is not about aldermanic prerogative. This is about expediting the way we issue permits. It is unreasonable for a small business that wants a sign or an awning to take 120 days and maybe even longer. … Businesses can’t put up that sign. Can’t tell people that they’re open. Can’t advertise their business practices because they’re waiting for an ordinance to clear.”

Escareno noted that during the pandemic, aldermen agreed to expedite the process for sidewalk café permits.

“They said, ‘We want to review the permit. But once we review it ... go and issue’” the permit, Escareno said.

“That’s exactly what we’re asking for in this ordinance. We have a proven pilot we can point to where the aldermen know we worked with them. … The process that we just had over the past year has worked.”

Yet another point of contention is almost certain to emerge: the proposal requiring anyone in Chicago hiring a “domestic worker” to enter into a written contract to pay them a minimum of $15-an-hour.

That applies even if somebody whether someone cleans your house once a week or twice a month.

Escareno said she plans to mitigate that potential bureaucratic nightmare by posting a short-and-sweet one-page contract on her department website that homeowners can download.

“This is not gonna be a 20-page contract, a 10-page contract, a five-page contract. This is a simple document,” she said.

City inspectors won’t knock on every door. But if housekeepers complain about a boss who isn’t paying at least $15-an-hour, their employer will be asked to produce the contract. They also run the risk of being fined.

“We need the domestic workers to feel valued and to be protected. They are among the most vulnerable employees,” Escareno said.

“We want to make sure that there is a very simple contract where you say you’re getting the minimum wage and these are the conditions of work.”