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City tries to clear way to reopen outdoor dining

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Evanston aldermen Tuesday night approved a resolution designed to ease limits on outdoor dining in the city while also complying with state social distancing requirements that will apply starting on Friday.

Under the state guidelines restaurants can start offering outdoor dining service to parties of six or fewer if they meet a variety of conditions.

But those conditions will require greater separation of tables than what’s specified in existing city sidewalk cafe permits.

The resolution calls for waiving permit fees for sidewalk cafes this year and simplifying the permit application process.

Separately, city staff is exploring options for using city-owned outdoor spaces — including on street parking areas and city parking lots — to provide additional outdoor dining options for existing restaurants.

But Paul Zalmezak, the city’s economic development manager, said there’s need for further discussion with restaurant owners about how to make those solutions work and whether they actually are workable.

The state guidelines call for a six-foot separation between restaurant tables, but city staff is interpreting that to mean six feet between the chairs of one table and the chairs of the next table when people are seated in those chairs.

That means that a 36-inch square restaurant table will need a total of about 121 square feet of space — considerably more than the traditional spacing in either indoor restaurants or outdoor cafes.

Restaurants with rooftop or private patio space — like Five & Dime, Firehouse Grill and Peckish Pig — won’t need special approval from the city — provided they meet the state distancing requirements.

And restaurants with window walls that open to the street — like Koi and Colectivo Coffee — will be able to seat patrons indoors within eight feet of those wide-open windows.

David Lipschultz, owner of Blind Faith Cafe, said restaurants are in a dangerous financial state, that few industries have been hit quite as hard by the pandemic as restaurants.

He said the state guidelines “are entirely appropriate” and that restaurant owners take public health seriously and recognize that it’s critical to their success.

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