CHICAGO — Hundreds of Chicago restaurants have obtained outdoor dining permits as a lifeline to stay afloat during the pandemic. Those options could remain if the City Council passes a new ordinance.
On the first night of fall in River North, the outdoor dining area on Clark Street shows no signs of cooling off.
“I think it kept us all alive for a while and you could be outside and now people have gotten used to it and they really like it,” said Rive North resident Chad Chmielowicz.
What was a temporary tool to ease the pressure of pandemic restrictions could soon become a city fixture. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is proposing a new ordinance that would make outdoor dining like this permanent from May through October each year.
“I think maybe it’s the next evolution. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and I think this is the definition of building a community,” said Jon Young, co-owner of Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar.
It’s a good idea for Jon Young, whose Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar has been a Roscoe Village staple for nearly two decades. Two years ago, he and others on his block created a weekend “Streetery” to stay in business.
“Looking back, we never would have made it to 2020 without that additional package of safe outdoor dining that quite frankly drew people to come out and support us,” Young said.
In the summers since then, it has only grown. He said the last season of “Streetery” brought about 10,000 new people to the neighborhood.
“I think it will definitely help us build businesses,” Young said. “Having an event like that is more than just having more seats on a sidewalk. Those are two completely different animals.”
As in the temporary version, under the proposed ordinance, three or more restaurants together could receive a full street closure permit from the Chicago Department of Transportation. In an effort to improve safety, some individual restaurants would be allowed to operate outdoor dining between traffic lanes and the sidewalk.
“We recognize that we can do better and what we are doing as part of this outdoor dining ordinance is allowing the sidewalk lane to be used for that dining area to make sure that we still have access to the sidewalk,” said the commissioner of CDOT, Gia Biagi. “We want pedestrians and people in wheelchairs. We want you on the sidewalk, so it’s going to be a huge improvement and activate part of the street that we weren’t using before.”
Many hope to transform a sign of the times into a pillar.
“Whenever we go out with friends or there are people or friends in town, we always come here and walk around,” Chmielowicz said. “It’s just a cool scene.”