COVID-19 Across Chicago: Oak Park

The atmosphere in Oak Park was cautiously optimistic Tuesday as the village and the rest of the state hurdles toward phase four of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s reopening plan, which includes controlled indoor dining and indoor activities. 

Oak Park was the first town in Illinois to shut down when a cluster of cases was found at local Rush Oak Park hospital in mid-March, just days before the statewide shutdown. 

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Interactive: More from our series, COVID-19 Across Chicago.

Three-and-a-half months later, the town has started to come to life again, with restaurants taking advantage of outdoor dining and retail stores allowing people inside once more.

Oak Park’s Chamber of Commerce says many businesses were able to get financial aid, and now feel like they have weathered the storm – but there is trepidation about what could come next. 

“My biggest concern is if we, the business community, and everybody, have to take a step back. Hopefully we’re moving into phase four on Friday … it would be terrible for the business community if we have to take a step back into phase three, or god forbid into phase two,” said Liz Holt of the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber. 

In March, WTTW News visited The Book Table on Lake Street just after the initial stay-at-home order for the village was announced. Owner Jason Smith said he was prepared for what everyone figured at the time might be a pause of just two weeks or more.

The Book Table started letting in customers into the store Monday.

Smith says they have made it through the shutdown, but if a second wave of the virus hits during the crucial holiday retail season, they won’t survive. 

Meanwhile, Art Studio 928 opened for business in February for group art lessons and parties where people drink wine and paint. 

Owner Cheryl Vargas was pleasantly surprised at the success she had switching those sessions online via Zoom

“My virtual business has been paying the bills,” Vargas said. 

Oak Park’s Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who made the early decision to shut down the town’s economy in mid-March, says he’s grateful to village residents for embracing the rules and precautions. 

Video: Our full interview with Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb.

“I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made in Oak Park. Our cases are down a lot,” he said. “It’s a slow recovery and it takes time … we need to take public safety seriously.” 

One community anchor in Oak Park is the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest, which publishes weekly and online.  

Editor and publisher Dan Haley says the pandemic has impacted the paper “in every dimension.” 

“Our news coverage has shifted for a period of weeks pretty much to totally covering COVID and all of its implications. [It] had a big negative impact on us as a business in terms of advertising,” Haley said. 

The Wednesday Journal and several other newspapers Haley oversees are operated under Growing Community Media, a nonprofit formed at the beginning of 2020. 

“This was an essential shift for us,” Haley said. “It allows us to bring in a new stream of revenue from readers, foundations, and it is a process of trying to educate readers that if they want local news, solid, real local news, that they’re going to have to pay for it somehow. And we give them a way to do that.”  

Video: More from our interview with Dan Haley.

Follow us on Twitter: @paschutz / @rquinnmyers

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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