As the state entered Phase 3 of the governor’s Restore Illinois plan today, for many Evanston merchants it was finally time to “re-OPEN the store Illinois.”

With some restrictions, non-essential retail, manufacturing and restaurants, were able to welcome back employees and customers … customers like Luis Boldizsar and Jana Caires.

Luis and Jana enjoyed dinner outdoors on the patio at the Firehouse Grill this evening, dinner out for the first time in more than two months. Restaurants had been limited to take-out only since mid-March, when Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a statewide stay at home order to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

Under Phase 3, outdoor dining is now allowed. Luis said he was driving by the Firehouse Grill.  “I saw they were open.  I called her,” he said, looking at Jana, “and she said let’s go right now.”

Added Jana, “I wanted to get out.”

But not all Evanston restaurants opened today, and the process will be gradual. The Newport Coffee House on Davis Street has been in business less than a year, and two months of that has been takeout only.

Waiting for takeout at Newport Coffee.

Owner Lotta Bengstsson said she hopes to put a few tables on the sidewalk in front soon. “I think a lot of people will be excited to sit outside, just for a cup of coffee.”

Restaurant employees must wear face coverings, and the tables have to be six feet apart. At Firehouse Grill, that cut patio capacity from 16 tables to 10.  Restaurants with their own private patios, such as Firehouse, can have outdoor dining without City Hall approval. Those wanting to put tables on the sidewalk need a permit, but the city will waive the application fee.

The city manager’s office has surveyed city restaurants. So far, 17 plan to apply for permits, three already have one, and 13 have private patios. More restaurants are expected to respond.

The city is also open to some creative ideas. Economic Development Manager Paul Zalmezak conducted a webinar Thursday with nearly 50 restaurant owners.  Among the options kicked around … using parking lanes on streets or city parking lots, or perhaps even closing streets  Nothing is final yet, but Zalmezak said the city is eager to help. “We want you to make some money,” he said, “and let people enjoy your businesses again.”

The “Open” sign was posted at Comix Revolution.

Retail openings appear to be gradual as well.  Some stores were still closed today with no indication what may happen, others, like boutique Gigi Bottega plan to open in a few days. There are limits on how many people can enter stores at the same time.

With people going without haircuts for two months, barber shops and hair salons were on many “to do” lists. Stylist Faruz Rassam and her customer both wore the required face covering at Hair by Faruz. “It’s good to be back,” she said.

Stylist Faruz Rassam with a customer.

Small businesses have been slammed by the coronavirus-related closings. Like so many other stores, Comix Revolution on Davis Street was surviving with online and pickup orders. Owner Jim Mortensen said business was down 90%. But now, being open again, “It feels great. The sun shines a little bit brighter for us.”

Governor Pritzker said enough progress has been made to lift the stay-at-home order, but coronavirus remains a very real threat, requiring face coverings when inside a business, and limiting the number of customers or office employees in a location at the same time.

Those things won’t change until the state enters Phase 4. The earliest that can happen, assuming health metrics are met, is late June. But based on Phase 3, Day 1, there is demand.

Firehouse Grill manager Barbara Cascio said their reservation-only patio was fully booked for this evening. To Restore Illinois, it’s one step at a time.  Just make sure those steps are six feet apart.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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