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Restaurants Say Pritzker's Loosened Restrictions On Restaurants And Bars Only A Thin Lifeline

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday, May 6.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday that restaurants and bars across Illinois will have the opportunity to open for outdoor seating when Phase 3 of his Restore Illinois plan begins May 29.

Pritzker’s original plan restricted restaurants and bars from opening until Phase 4 begins, most likely later this summer.

“When I introduced our reopening framework, I said that we can and we will make our Restore Illinois plan smarter as we move forward,” Pritzker said.   

But many restaurants and bars don’t have any outdoor space available, so it’s a thin lifeline thrown out to a beleaguered industry, according to Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia. Thousands of owners still face the possibility of closure as federal small business loan programs dry up and their rent goes unpaid. Industry leaders like Toia have for weeks pressed the governor to fully open on-site dining during Phase 3, but Pritzker said public health experts considered such indoor activity too risky at present.

“But the epidemiologists now believe that summer offers us an opportunity if proper precautions are taken by businesses and their patrons,” he said.  

In addition to requiring tables to remain 6 feet apart and away from sidewalks, social distancing rules must be observed, with patrons and customers wearing face coverings when possible.

“The experts believe these services can open at a risk comparable to other outdoor activities, and give our hospitality industry a much-needed boost as they work to keep their businesses on their feet during this terrible crisis,” Pritzker said.

On one level, it may seem an odd time to loosen restrictions. State officials announced Wednesday that 146 residents died of complications from COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours after 145 deaths the day before, both big jumps from the previous three days when the daily toll was between 48 and 71. The state also just surpassed 4,500 deaths and 100,000 confirmed cases.  

But Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said the rate of spread has slowed in every region of the state, and hospitals also now have sufficient beds and intensive care units to deal with serious cases.

Hitting those goals is required before any of the state’s four regions can move on to Phase 3. Officials will also then allow other sectors such as manufacturing, offices and nonessential retail like barbershops and salons to open, as long as they maintain social distancing and follow other IDPH guidelines.

“In the coming days we’ll be releasing formal, industry-specific guidelines developed in consultation with business owners and employees, particularly around workplaces and child care,” Pritzker said.

Toia said restaurateurs will be looking for other solutions, such as closing off streets to expand available space for outdoor dining. But they won’t violate any executive orders or take any unsafe actions that might cause the state to slip back in its fight against the disease.

“The No. 1 thing is we don’t want to open the economy and then close it again, OK? That is what restaurants and bars totally understand. That would be death.”