Chicago's Outdoor Dining May Stick Around For Good

The Coronavirus pandemic changed how we do almost everything, but there have been a few (very faint) silver linings. Nobody really enjoyed wearing masks, but NPR notes that they momentarily turned schools and businesses into flu-free zones. Early pandemic restrictions and social distancing fears almost took restaurants down initially, but the Nation's Restaurant News reports that savvy eatery owners assuaged patron's worries by providing outdoor dining.

Creating a welcoming space for outdoor dining on the fly came with its own set of challenges for restaurateurs and their staff. Restaurant owners benefited from increased capacity that allowed for more business but also had to purchase the equipment to keep diners safe from weather and traffic. Waiters grappled with an increased workload and had to figure out how to streamline their beverage and menu options while providing the level of service that patrons expected. Despite the pandemic-induced growing pains, restaurants began to see that outdoor dining was becoming wildly popular.

According to The National Restaurant Association, 43% of adults tried dining at an outdoor "streetery" during the height of the pandemic. Outdoor diners covered the generational gamut, with everyone from Gen Z to baby boomers giving restaurants extended to sidewalks, streets, and makeshift patios a go. Dining outside was in, and 84% of adults said they wanted it to stick around (via National Restaurant Association).

Chicago establishes permanent outdoor dining program

Outdoor dining has been the surprise hit of the pandemic. While it's not popular with everyone, even restaurateurs in cities where the weather is a challenge saw patrons brave the elements to enjoy socializing over good food. The City of Chicago took note of outdoor dining's ongoing popularity and, after two temporary extensions, has decided to proposed a long-term Expanded Outdoor Dining (EOD) program.

The permanent EOD program proposed by Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot in conjunction with city government transportation, business affairs, and consumer protection departments will allow qualifying restaurants to operate eateries extended to the sidewalks and streets just outside their doors. Expanding the dining program would increase accessibility by allowing eateries to use curb lanes and closed portions of the road in areas with multiple restaurants. The city would issue annual permits to establishments responsibly operating an outdoor dining extension to support local hospitality and dining industries.

Chicago city government agencies recognized the restaurant industry as a vital part of positive neighborhood culture, changing once-empty city streets and sidewalks into vibrant areas for social gatherings. By helping restaurants create inviting public spaces, the Windy City hopes to benefit small businesses, neighborhoods, and residents through the permanent extension of outdoor dining.