New State Restrictions Stall Restaurants’ Cold Weather Plans

New State Restrictions Stall Restaurants’ Cold Weather Plans

For many local restaurants, outdoor dining during the summer and fall was a lifeline for their businesses. Now, just as adjustments were being made to both prolong the outdoor season and reassure guests that indoor dining is safe, restaurants find themselves grappling with new restrictions triggered by a resurgence in suburban COVID cases.

Indoor Dining Ban Announced
Beginning Wednesday, October 28, restaurants and bars in suburban Cook County will be limited to outdoor service and carryout due to worsening public health metrics, including eight consecutive days of increases in test positivity and seven days of increased hospital admissions.  The return of so-called “resurgence mitigations” allows restaurants to continue carryout and delivery service, but bans indoor seating, standing or congregating.  Tents with closed sides are covered by the rules for indoor spaces.

The duration of the new restrictions depends on how well Region 10/Suburban Cook reverses its current trends.  Benchmarks for lifting the rules include:

  • the positivity rate in Region 10 averaging less than or equal to 6.5% over a three-day period
  • a decrease in hospital admissions for COVID-19 like illness over a three-day period, and
  • the three-day rolling averages of ICU bed availability and medical/surgical bed availability being greater than or equal to 20% over a seven-day period.

Conversely, continued growth in positivity or hospital admissions may lead to more stringent mitigations.  In the meantime, local restaurants will be leaning heavily on carryout and delivery business while continuing to implement plans for a wider reopening.

Innovations Support Transition to Winter
Tents became a familiar part of the dining landscape over the summer, offering shade and shelter as well as natural air circulation.  With dropping temperatures, several restaurants have lowered the sides of tents and added heating units in order to supplement the limited number of seats indoors. Northbrook Fire Department officials stress that any liquid propane heating units must be placed outside a tent to decrease the risk of fire or carbon monoxide buildup.  Once the new restrictions are lifted, tents may once again become an important option, especially for smaller eateries.

“We do have a heated tent, along with seating inside,” reports Ali Clark, Trattoria Oliverii. “Our tables are spaced out, so seating is limited.”  Marcello’s Restaurant took advantage of a covered patio and umbrellas to provide outdoor dining with heaters.

In comparison, Allgauer’s on the Riverfront opted not to set up a tent because they could take advantage of their exceptionally large indoor space.  “Since we can seat up to 300 people under normal conditions, we have no problem spacing tables out inside the restaurant,” explains Holly Allgauer-Cir.

A different approach to outdoor dining has been introduced at The Glen Club, where geodesic “igloos” are available for private parties of up to eight people. The domes are warmed by LED fireplaces, and are sanitized by misters between seatings.  A rental fee reserves the unit for two hours, with food and drink charges additional.  According to The Glen Club’s Michael Koenig, interest in the igloos is booming.

“In the first week of accepting reservations, we’ve had 130 bookings,” says Michael.  “We have two styles of igloo, a dining model with a full-size table and a lounge with relaxed seating. We hope to be able to keep them open all winter.”

For indoor seating, restaurants are going above and beyond with new technology to create safer environments.  Francesca’s North and Allgauer’s on the Riverfront are each installing plasma chamber filtration systems, which use ionization to kill pathogens and viruses in the air.  Claim Company and Grill House are among the restaurants using touchless menus; customers can scan a QR code to make food selections via their phones. Online ordering platforms being introduced at Oliverii’s, Culvers of Northbrook, and other businesses reduce the time customers might spend in line.

For most restaurants, carryout traffic has become a central part of their revenue.  Culvers enjoys an advantage as one of the few drive-thru restaurants in Northbrook, but almost all other establishments offer some version of curbside pickup and delivery.  Even upscale destinations like Morton’s The Steakhouse provide extensive carryout options, including “Butcher Block” packages that bring their famous steaks to the customer’s own backyard grill or kitchen.

“We created a to-go menu a few years ago so we were ready when the shutdown happened, but we never could have predicted the volume that we’ve seen,” says Patty Pleuss, Morton’s Sales & Events Manager.  “As the weather gets colder, we expect to see around 50 percent of our business being carryout or delivery and 50 percent dining in, including our three private dining rooms.”

The Chamber can help promote your restaurant’s new dining options through its social media, website Hot Deals, and other platforms; contact Communications Manager Carolyn Gessner for assistance.  In addition, Chicago’s North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau invites you to participate in a new Deal of the Day program, launching in mid-November.  For comprehensive support to navigate the Covid economy, the Illinois Restaurant Association offers a variety of resources for restaurant management to ensure safety, promote customer confidence, and access financial and legal assistance.