UPDATE: May 20, 2020: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday restaurants could open with outdoor seating during Phase 3, which he said could start as soon as nine days from his announcement. Dining rooms still won't be allowed to reopen until Phase 4. While there are 10 days left on the statewide stay-at-home order, regions that have met required health metrics will be allowed to reopen. Some counties have already started to reopen, but in metro areas like Chicago, restaurants aren't expected to reopen until June.
- The Illinois Restaurant Association is petitioning the state to allow restaurants to reopen earlier as the current Restore Illinois Plan would not allow dine-in operations to resume until June 26 at the earliest. The organization wants restaurants to be allowed to restore dine-in service during Phase 3, which is expected to occur as early as May 29, instead of the current plan to reopen during Phase 4.
- “Everyone that works in the industry is highly-trained in proper food handling and sanitation already, and we are heavily-regulated and frequently-inspected by public health officials on a regular basis,” the petition says. “We want to work with the state on developing these pragmatic regulations that will prioritize public health and safety while giving restaurants the opportunity to resume their dine in operations in a timely manner.”
- The organization said restaurants won’t be able to survive much longer and as of April 16, 55% of Illinois operators have temporarily closed their restaurants and 88% of operators laid off or furloughed employees. The industry has lost about $2 billion in sales in April.
While some restaurants in states like Georgia and Texas have pushed back on reopening in early May, arguing that it was too soon and operators needed more time to safely reopen, Illinois restaurants believe another month and a half of closures was too long under the governor's original plan. While dining rooms will remain closed, this latest move will definitely help. Illinois was one of the first states to curtail dine-in operations on March 17. Over two dozen states have or will allow some kind of plan to reopen dining service in the coming weeks. The addition of outdoor dining will help, but still won't make up for the fact that dining rooms are closed, especially for restaurants that don't have a suitable outdoor sidewalk area or parking lot where they could set up tables. In New Hampshire, for example, only half of the state's restaurants are expected to reopen since the other half don't have the ability to do so. Other regions have also said restaurants will be able to reopen with outdoor dining, including Connecticut and New Jersey.
"The Governor’s action to allow for expanded outdoor dining options will benefit many restaurants statewide at a time when every dollar counts and provides a glimmer of light at the end of this long, COVID-19 tunnel," Sam Toia, Illinois Restaurant Association president and CEO, said in a statement emailed to Restaurant Dive. "Innovative outdoor dining strategies extend a lifeline — restoring jobs and offering guests the hospitality experience they’ve been missing while prioritizing public health and safety. Outdoor dining will not help every restaurant, but it is a constructive step in the right direction. The Illinois Restaurant Association will continue to collaborate with business owners, elected officials and public health experts to work through this crisis, flatten the curve and revive our economy."
This move will be welcome news to restaurants that want to open sooner. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises president R.J. Melman told the Chicago Tribune that operators had been anticipating a June 1, but reopening by maybe July 1 was a “gut punch."
New cases of COVID-19 appear to be trailing off in the state, peaking on May 1 and have continuously declined since May 8, which could help fuel the IRA’s argument to reopen sooner. There’s also the economic impact to consider, and closures have taken a huge toll on the restaurant industry as well, with job losses nationwide reaching nearly 6 million in March and April. Many states have already allowed dine-in operations to resume across the country, but a handful have been reopening in defiance of state orders, such as a restaurant in Colorado that drew huge crowds on Mother’s Day, showing just how important it is for restaurants to work closely with state regulators to find a happy medium.