City Council approves expanded cookout program

CHICAGO (CBS) — The City Council unanimously approved Wednesday a plan to make permanent an outdoor dining program that has helped Chicago restaurants and bars survive the pandemic.

In spring 2020, the city established temporary rules that allow some restaurants and bars to expand sidewalk patios, allowing them to occupy portions of some city streets or neighboring private property, such as parking lots.

On Tuesday, the City Council’s Licensing and Consumer Protection Committee unanimously endorsed a plan by Mayor Brandon Johnson to make those rules a permanent part of the city’s municipal code, after the new mayor agreed to give councilmembers the last word on permits in her district, in stark contrast to former mayor Lori Lightfoot, who had sought to establish an automatic renewal process that would have eliminated them.

The full City Council unanimously approved the ordinance without debate on Wednesday.

During Tuesday’s committee hearing, Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose district includes a large number of restaurants in and around downtown Chicago, praised Johnson for making sure councilmembers had a say in who gets the permits, saying Lightfoot was “bent on getting the councilors of the equation”.

“The fact that councilors now have an equal seat at the table is incredibly important,” Relly said. “Councillors need to have a seat at this particular table, because if they’re not done correctly, they can be incredibly disruptive to the neighborhood.”

Ald. Walter Burnett, 27, said councilors know the needs of their neighborhood better than anyone, so it’s important they have a say in which businesses can get and keep outdoor dining permits.

“We take the pulse of the community. We’re there. We can’t get away, right? And when the community has a problem, we have a problem. That’s what I tell every company. If the community has a problem, then you have a problem with me, because we take their pulse and we have to advocate for the pulse of the community,” he said.

During the pandemic, many businesses relied on larger outdoor cafes, or even closing parts of city streets, to continue serving customers while indoor dining was banned to limit the spread of COVID-19. 19.

“Al fresco dining has provided great relief to businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic and has helped stimulate Chicago’s economy,” Chicago Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Ken Meyer told the committee before the Tuesday vote. “The program has become a popular and impactful way to support the city’s restaurant-hotel industry by creating attractive outdoor dining for all residents and visitors.”

Those expanded rules for outdoor dining expired late last year, but Johnson and several City Council members have drawn up a plan to make them a permanent part of the city’s municipal code and allow restaurants and bars to open those larger patios. and outdoor cafes again. this year.

Under permanent rules approved by the committee, retail food establishments with an “on-premises” license would be eligible for expanded outdoor dining permits, which would allow them to set up curbside seating outside of the business, in parking lots neighbors, or on the sidewalks in front of neighboring businesses. If three or more restaurants or bars on the same block request permission to do so, they could obtain a permit to close an entire street between two adjacent intersections to establish street-side dining areas.

Bars and taverns that do not have food licenses may set up outdoor seating only if they partner with a restaurant to provide food service to their customers.

Annual permits for sidewalk cafes, as usual, would be valid from March 1 through the end of February, while permits for outdoor curbside dining or full street closures would be valid from May 1 through 31 October.

newly elected councillor. Bennett Lawson (44th) said outdoor dining has been a vital benefit to the Lakeview community he represents, noting that when he ran for office, more voters asked him about the popular Broadway cookout than over Wrigley Field.

“So that’s really a testament to how popular that opportunity was and how badly they wanted it back,” he said.

Lawson said making sure outdoor dining permits are reviewed annually was vital to making sure restaurants and bars don’t become a nuisance.

“Some places work great, and others are a nightmare, and a lot of times the operator is the biggest determinant of that; how well they’re taking care of that stretch of curb lane, dealing with snow and ice, or just a double-wide stroller in Southport, whatever,” he said.

Meyer estimated that permits for sidewalk cafes and other outdoor dining venues generated an additional $550,000 a year in revenue for the city from permit fees alone. That doesn’t include the additional sales tax revenue that outdoor dining generated, and more than makes up for the estimated $100,000 the city will have to pay LAZ Parking under the city’s parking meter contract for taking any parking meters out of service. metered parking for setting up sidewalk dining areas or closing off entire streets for outdoor dining.

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia applauded the mayor and council members for working with the restaurant industry to craft permanent rules for the expanded outdoor dining program, to allow restaurateurs to maintain a vital tool to stay in business.

“Having a popular patio, beer garden or sidewalk cafe makes a business more attractive to Chicagoans and tourists alike,” he said.

Hagen Dost, owner of Dovetail Brewery in the North Center neighborhood, said being able to expand patio seating during the pandemic has helped his business over the past three years.

“This patio was a lifeline for us during the pandemic. We literally wouldn’t be here without having the expanded outdoor dining program,” she said.

For Dost, making outdoor dining rules permanent is crucial because, in his words, the pandemic isn’t over for small businesses.

“It should be permanent. I think it’s the city’s job to make life better for Chicagoans, and one of the ways you can make life better is to help people enjoy the few months of good weather we have in this city”. he said.

The new rules would give councilmembers the authority to approve or deny expanded outdoor dining permits in their district, based on particular requirements.

Dost said he was fine with that.

β€œIt is the councilor’s job to also protect neighbors from bad businesses and with a bad reputation,” he said.

The full City Council is expected to give final approval to the permanent outdoor dining program on Wednesday.