Under Gov. J.B. Pritkzer’s newly unveiled plan to reopen Illinois’ economy in stages, the earliest that bars and restaurants will be able to reopen to customers – even in a partial capacity – is late June.
The Illinois Restaurant Association’s Sam Toia says for many in the business, that will be too late.
By then, they’ll have been closed for 16 weeks.
Since mid-March, when they were first restricted to delivery and curbside pickup, Toia says restaurants are, on average, seeing an 80% drop-off in business.
“I don’t know how many restaurants – or any business – can go 16 weeks with sales down 80% and survive,” Toia said.
Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” plan calls for reopening the economy in five phases. Only when there’s a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 will the state reach the final stage.
Illinois is in the second stage now. All but nonessential businesses are closed, nonessential gatherings aren’t allowed and “essential” ones are limited to a maximum of 10 people, and bars and restaurants are limited to drive-thru, delivery and curbside service.
They’ll remain that way through phase three.
Only in phase four will they be permitted to reopen. The soonest Illinois regions can reach that point is June 26 — and it’s possible it could be later.
“I’d thought that they were going to say, OK, in streets where you have more than, you know, four restaurants, you’ll be able to close a portion and hopefully be able to do alfresco dining, which would be amazing for us,” said Rodolfo Cuadros, the owner and chef of Amaru, a pan-Latin restaurant in Wicker Park. “So (the timing is) disheartening.”
Cuadros said his restaurant quickly adapted when it was forced to shut down – moving to curbside service, offering special brunch menus and family style meals for takeout.
But he said it’s difficult, and he isn’t taking a salary.
While the landlord offered to extend the due date for rent, Cuadros said that would just put him deeper in the hole down the line.
Rent alone is $7,000 and nowadays, Amaru may get $200 on a bad weekday. Weekends are better, but a mere fraction of what people would be spending were they dining in, or having drinks at the bar.
“Honestly, it’s devastating. On many levels. I feel a responsibility to all my employees, especially my back-of-house and front-of-house employees. I made this commitment when I hired you and now I can’t make ends meet,” he said.
The Illinois Restaurant Association is hoping to persuade Pritzker to follow models in other states, where restaurants are allowed to partially reopen at a quarter or half of their capacity.
“We’re not opening till June 26 and we’re not even sure what the occupancy will be at that time,” Toia said. “We know that it’s 50 people or less. But a restaurant with 3,000 square feet is different than a restaurant with 30,000 square feet.”
It’s something he said Illinois restaurants would be willing to try, he said.
Without knowing that, restaurateurs like Scott Weiner of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, which owns places including The Berkshire Room, The 50/50, West Town Bakery, Utopian Village and Roots Handmade Pizza, said he’s left confused about what the future may hold.
“I have no better understanding of when we’re going to open today than I did two days ago, before this,” Weiner said of the governor’s new plan.
He said he understands that Pritzker is in a difficult position.
But given that moving from one phase to the next requires hospitals have increased capacity, he questions why Illinois has already closed the makeshift hospital set up at the McCormick Place convention center as overflow.
“My biggest concern is, I feel that every month we’re closed adds another six months of recovery time,” he said. “I’m not looking to put anybody’s health at risk. I completely support safety, and our customers. I get it. There’s no future in people dying and getting sick. I’m just trying to understand why certain decisions were made.”
As it stands, he said, he doesn’t have any realistic expectation of when his restaurants will be able to reopen or when he’ll be back to anything close to 100% occupancy.
“I’m feeling less and less confident in my ability to reopen my business than I was two days ago. I don’t see any path forward,” he said.
Pritzker on Wednesday did not appear obliged to change his plan.
“These are situations where you are naturally going to be putting people close to one another. There are servers, who will be serving food, which can transmit the disease. The infection. bartenders and so on. So all of these things are playing, you know, a role in the decision-making,” he said. “And look, I also think that the public understands this. And even if you flung the doors open on bars and restaurants today, I think many people would say, ‘I don’t want to be in a public location like that.’”
It’s yet another concern, piled atop many.
Weiner said he’s worried that given the rising and prolonged number of people without jobs, nobody will have money to dine out when they are finally allowed to do so.
And Amaru’s Cuadros said he has started to have trouble getting meat from his regular purveyor, and that’s making it difficult to plan menus.
As a restaurant that’s relatively new – Amaru just opened in July – he’s not eligible for many small business grants.
“I worry about my kids and my wife and so I feel like he’s doing the right thing. But for the business, for our livelihood, it’s scary, you know,” he said. “I can’t even – without trying to get emotional about anything, it’s scary times. I dunno if we’re going to make it through.”
But he’s trying, and planning to, so he can once again properly serve diners his favorite dish of chicken roasted over charcoals, pollo al carbon.
“I can’t wait to get back,” he said.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky