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Lightfoot’s pandemic relief package clears first hurdle; includes midnight curfew on liquor sales

A Chicago City Council committee on Thursday endorsed a package of proposals to help Chicagoans recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pandemic relief package — including a revised, midnight curfew on citywide liquor sales — sailed through a City Council committee Thursday after a spirited debate about aldermanic prerogative.

Lightfoot avoided what would almost certainly have been her first City Council defeat by turning back the curfew clock — from 10 p.m. to midnight.

The extra two hours of liquor sales managed to appease License Committee members concerned about the impact on businesses struggling to get back on their feet.

In fact, Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) was the only alderman to air any concerns at all about the curfew that would require liquor, grocery and convenience stores to cut off liquor sales at midnight.

And Sposato joined the majority in the 15-to-3 vote in support of Lightfoot’s ordinance.

“Being in a border ward, you know what’s gonna happen. … They’re gonna go right across the street and destroy our businesses and we’re just gonna have vacancies left and right. Once again, we are punished, being a border ward. Being a safe community,” Sposato said.

“I said I’ll support this. I support it. But boy, I sure don’t want this to turn around and bite me in the ass a couple years from now. … I support it very hesitantly.”

Most of the debate was centered around aldermanic prerogative, an issue that has divided Lightfoot and the City Council since the mayor used her inauguration address to declare war on the longstanding tradition.

The mayor’s plan calls for shaving up to two months off the 150-day wait for business permits, signs and awnings by ending the longstanding practice of requiring a separate ordinance for each public way permit.

That tramples on aldermanic turf in a way that Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) simply cannot accept.

“I’m all for expediting the process. I just don’t think we should expedite the process at the expense of our authority,” Hopkins said.

“Let’s expedite the process and make sure that applications are processed toward approval or denial in a rapid manner without taking away our aldermanic authority.”

Hopkins pointed to an example in his own ward. More than a year ago, he was negotiating a plan of operation with a bar that wanted to open up a “rooftop party area” in a residential neighborhood.

Before the plan could be hammered out, the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection issued the license without notifying his office.

“Every complaint I get from a neighbor about this operation — they’re not really interested in hearing that … there was an end-run around me,” he said.

“It raises the issue of our aldermanic authority and how important it is that we maintain it. This is not maintaining it. This is eliminating it in favor of a recommendation, which may or may not be honored.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) suggested an alternative to relinquishing aldermanic authority: Issuing sign permits “pending passage” of an ordinance.

“Make it automatic. Once the alderman checks the box, they’re good. We’ll pass the ordinance in due time. But the business owner doesn’t need to wait for it. It solves all the problems here in this ordinance that are objectionable,” Reilly said.

“Everything else in this ordinance, I support. Everything. But, this is one piece that, once the Council lets it go, it’s gone.”

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno countered that Chicago is the “only city” in the nation that still requires full City Council approval for “something as basic as a sign.”

That is simply untenable as small businesses across the city struggle to get back on their feet and need to “bring in traffic and promote themselves.”

The mayor’s kitchen sink of a package also includes:

• Requiring third-party delivery services to collect and remit Chicago’s restaurant tax and extending the 15% cap on delivery fees until 180 days after all pandemic-related restrictions on restaurants are repealed.

• Authorizing both delivery and carryout of cocktails-to-go.

• Shaving up to three weeks from the time it takes for new restaurants to get licenses to open in spaces occupied by previously shuttered establishments.

• Relaxing restrictions on sidewalk sandwich boards and overhaul licensing and permitting to make it easier for restaurants to open.

• Extending the life of Chicago taxicabs from seven to 10 years for standard vehicles and from 10 to 15 years for fuel-efficient taxis.

• Eliminating barriers that have made it impossible for non-violent ex-offenders to drive public vehicles or enter the hospitality industry.

Lightfoot argued the midnight curfew on liquor sales “strikes the right balance.”

“I’ve always thought that midnight was the place that we should land,” she said. “Surely, if you need to buy liquor, you can get it by midnight to tide yourself over until the next morning, if that’s what your intent is.”

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