WBEZ | Elliott Ramos | May 21, 2020

Since the start of the statewide shutdown, restaurants have been permanently closing their doors one after another. So these businesses are pleading with officials to give them leeway to offer new ways of serving their patrons.

Last Wednesday, Gov. JB Pritzker threw restaurants and bars a lifeline, announcing that in Phase 3 they would be allowed to open outdoors provided they allow for social distancing.

“With the right restrictions, tables 6 feet apart and away from the sidewalks, masks and distancing measures for staff and other precautions, the experts believe that these services can open at a risk comparable to other outdoor activities and give our hospitality industry a much-needed boost,” Pritzker said during his daily COVID-19 briefing.

But how would that work? One Chicago architect believes design is the answer. Josh Pabst, an architect for RATIO, a design firm with offices in Chicago, has created a concept that could allow for outdoor dining on city streets.

Pabst’s idea is simple: Close selected streets to vehicle traffic and extend the sidewalk area to accommodate outdoor seating. Pedestrians would walk down the center, similar to the configuration Chicagoans are accustomed to seeing during neighborhood street festivals.

“I certainly wasn’t the first to think it or write it, but I thought it could use an architect to think that through and what that means, how that might look,” said Pabst, who does not work for the city and created these renderings pro bono.

Chicago is no stranger to outdoor seating, nor closing streets. The city has an extensive outdoor cafe program, which is a quintessential Chicago summer experience. Every year, restaurants must obtain permits, which are approved by the City Council and adhere to strict rules, which include barricades, ADA accessibility, and even having flowers and plants to mark their boundaries.

So, if the city were looking for a mechanism to implement such a plan, the cafe application process would be the easiest place to start: More than 300 permits have already been approved for this summer, according to data from the city’s department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

“The street space offers a parallel to what the whole world is doing. The whole world is trying to balance the economy and health. And the street offers the opportunity to do both,” Pabst said.

Last year, nearly 1,200 restaurants and bars applied for sidewalk cafe permits. But, the program could be extended to the thousands more dine-in establishments in the city, many adjacent to sidewalks that have little space for tables.

“What’s unique about roads is they’re already paid for. The municipality has a tool in its pocket,” Pabst said.

In 2013, WBEZ reported that many of the city’s sidewalk cafes were clustered on the North Side, and that holds true today. Those businesses have a leg up on others because the streets have been modified to have wider pedestrian sidewalks through decades of streetscape projects.

Even so, the social-distancing requirement would cap the number of patrons they’d be able to serve with limited space. And restaurants without pedestrian-centric streets on the South and West Sides would likely need additional space to operate outdoors.

“I want to encourage municipalities and mayors who are interested in helping restaurants expand their outdoor seating options to do whatever is in their power and best fits their communities to help these restaurants,” Pritzker said.

Last year, the city’s Department of Transportation approved more than 600 street closures permits for festivals such as Market Days in Lakeview or Midsommarfest in Andersonville, and more than 4,000 additional closures for neighborhood block parties.

The city’s festival permitting process, which includes street closures, CTA reroutes, and the drinking beer and wine on public ways, could in theory be applied to an open streets concept.

“This is not the final solution, it’s something to talk about,” Pabst said. “We need engagement from the businesses and community.”