A new state rule issued today envisions creating expanded outdoor dining options at restaurants across Illinois — potentially having sidewalk cafes stretch into streets and other public areas — but that will require action by the City of Evanston to happen here.

Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty says the city’s recovery team has been looking at the possibility of converting parking spaces as well as closing certain streets to give restaurants more capacity to serve diners while meeting state-mandated social distancing requirements.

The last time the city let a business take over parking spaces for a seating area, several years ago for Hewn Bakery, it required an elaborate wooden structure to bring the street up to sidewalk level and create barriers to block cars from encroaching on the area.

Design rules like that, coupled with a months-long approval process, could mean the outdoor dining season would be over before expanded cafe spaces could open in Evanston.

The mayor said he anticipates city staff will have some new streamlined rules to propose by the end of the month to let restaurant businesses get back to work quickly, but he said he wasn’t sure whether the proposals would be ready for next Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

He said there also are questions about whether any street closures should be in effect all week, or just on a schedule like Thursday through Sunday, when restaurants usually are most busy.

Roger Sosa, executive director of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber is starting to put together a reopening guide for restaurants — addressing how much personal protective equipment they’ll need and other issues.

Sosa says social distancing requirements and questions about how quickly customers will be confident enough to return to dining out will make for a challenging environment for restaurant owners and could force them to raise prices.

“It could be that your $30 steak will become a $50 steak,” he said, but he added that expanding outdoor dining space would help restaurants build up the volume they need to moderate any price increases.

Sosa says that while he’s encouraged to see the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 decrease, it’s important to be cautious in reopening.

“Do it once and do it right,” he said. “We don’t want to rush out and then have to close again and try to reopen a second time. That would be a mess. Nobody needs that.”

Hagerty said that in addition to detailed new rules for restaurants from the Illinois Department of Public Health, he anticipates the state agency will be issuing new rules within the next week or so that will address the re-opening of outdoor recreation facilites like basketball courts, playgrounds and beaches. “We’re waiting for that information to help us roll out our plans for the summer,” the mayor said.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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