The pandemic that has wreaked havoc on restaurants may also have produced a silver lining – at least that’s the hope of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is moving to permanently introduce the outdoor cooking recipes suggested by COVID-19.

Lightfoot proposed to formalize, without an end date, regulations that would allow qualifying restaurants to set up tables on the road in front of their premises, restricting lanes or closing parts of certain streets to traffic entirely.

These rules, introduced in 2020 and extended twice until the end of this year, have allowed some restaurants to reopen in the first months of the pandemic while maintaining social distancing and reducing indoor meetings.

According to the new proposal, restaurants and bars can apply for annual permits to extend gastronomy to the street from May 1 to October 31. People with sidewalks too narrow for sidewalk cafes will be able to set up seats on curbs, and groups of three or more companies will be able to apply for complete street closures.

The plan, which has to go through the City Council, “takes into account feedback and lessons learned from the last two years to enable eligible restaurants to continue their responsible activities on the roadway directly in front of or adjacent to their premises,” the city press release reads.

“I am delighted that Chicago is now building on the success of this program and establishing long-term ways to support our hospitality and catering industry by inviting dining establishments in our neighborhoods,” Lightfoot said in a release.

Following the abrupt closure of indoor restaurants in March 2020, some restaurants switched to curb pickup and even grocery delivery, but many did not survive and closed for good. Lightfoot was cautious about allowing the restaurant to reopen months later, waiting longer than in many parts of the region and state. But around the same time, at the end of May 2020, it issued the Extended Outdoor Dining Permit, a measure that it intends to codify now.

Lightfoot had previously signaled its interest in expanding outdoor restaurants beyond pandemic parameters. In March 2021, it launched the Chicago Alfresco, encouraging restaurants to design “creative, long-term outdoor spaces”. She then tweeted: “Last spring, we out of necessity expanded our outdoor dining options. Now we develop it because we love it. “

The Chicago Department of Business and Consumer Affairs commissioner said the new initiative is “an exciting next step in Chicago’s outdoor dining program, which is a fundamental part of Chicago’s vibrant food scene.”

“The ongoing Expanded Outdoor Dining program supports small businesses and neighborhoods, as it has done since its inception,” said Commissioner Kenneth Meyer in a press release.

During the three seasons of extended outdoor eating from 2020, restaurants and bars have built sheds for dining on both warm and cold days. The winners of the winter kitchen competition in 2021 came up with heated tables and glass cabins, many versions of which were introduced during the winter spike in COVID-19 cases as the number of omicron variants increased.

Still, some restaurant owners argue that permitting costs and a lack of communication from officials, coupled with concerns that lockouts might ward off take-away customers, represent a mixed bag when it comes to balance aid.

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Lakeview was the first neighborhood to test an open-air dining program in 2020, blocking North Broadway south of Belmont Avenue on the eastern side of the district.

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Melissa Bulger, CEO of the lively, no-frills Stella’s Diner, said closing the hallway was helpful, but not crucial. “It doesn’t make a huge difference, but of course it allows us to accommodate more people, which is good,” she said on Thursday.

In the Lower West Side area, Bacchanalia Ristorante is a family-run Italian restaurant focused on classic recipes. Paula Pieri, who co-owns the restaurant with her brother, said the closure of streets in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood was a boon to business.

“Some older people are still skeptical about the food inside so it really helps,” said Pieri.

The restaurant will continue to host al fresco dining along South Oakley Street while guests remain comfortable enough as the weather cools.

“Unfortunately, we can only benefit when the weather permits,” said Pieri. “We’d love to have the igloos they have at Fulton Market, but they’re so expensive.”

nkindelsperger@chicagotribune.com

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