Alex Contreras works the counter during Brown Cow’s reopening celebration on April 17. | Alex Rogals, Staff Photographer

On April 17, spring was in the air along Madison Street. The sun shined in a blue sky; parents with kids in strollers increased foot traffic on the sidewalks; teenagers with skateboards hung out in Constitution Court; and an estimated 70 well-wishers gathered in front of the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor for a grand reopening and ribbon-cutting ceremony.

It was easy to feel hopeful as Forest Park’s main business street clearly seemed to be coming back to life.

Connie Brown, Brown Cow’s owner, said she is planning to hire 10 more employees in the coming weeks to increase her staff to 22 or 23. With the entrance to her business festooned with balloons, Mayor Hoskins present to assist in the ribbon-cutting, and free ice cream for the crowd, it did feel like things were returning to normal.

Paul McKenna, who has run Starship with Henry Laskowski since 1977, noted that though their restaurant is known for their soups and sub sandwiches, a large percentage of their business is in catering, with the prohibition of large gatherings, that source of revenue shrunk to almost zero. He hopes, with the weather warming up and increasing numbers of people getting vaccinated, that business will return.

But business owners temper their optimism with ambivalence regarding the future.

Louie’s Grill, Jimmie’s Place, and Caffe de Luca have returned to indoor dining, which is progress, but Jim Jodoin, owner of Jimmie’s, said business is only about halfway back to where it was in 2019. His staff wears face masks and, asked when he thinks his popular restaurant will be “back to normal,” he rolls his eyes.

Valaiporn Pinyo, who owns the Yum Thai restaurant, is looking forward to being able to serve customers indoors and reported that loyal customers have helped increase her take-out business, but her inability to find workers has tempered her enthusiasm about the future.

“They are waiting for their unemployment compensation to run out,” she explained, repeating the complaint of restaurant owners up and down Madison Street, “before they want to come back to work.”

Dexter Cura, one of the owners of Escape Factor, said he sees signs of the economy coming back, but in his business, which involves groups of people doing an activity for an hour or more, it all depends on the virus. “After everyone is vaccinated and/or all restrictions have been lifted,” he said, “then we can schedule multiple groups at the same time and have more groups in a day because we won’t have to take additional time between games to clean and disinfect.”

Leaders in Forest Park churches are telling the same story. Things are getting better. At this time last year, Living Word Christian Center was allowing a maximum of 120 worshipers to attend each of its services in a sanctuary that can accommodate 2,500. A year later it’s up to 400.

Last March, Pastor Pongsak Limthongviratn was leading virtual worship from his home. Last Sunday St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church was prepared to welcome a maximum of 35 worshippers while continuing to broadcast worship on YouTube.

Pastor Leonard Payton emphasized the word “cautious” when he said that at St. John Lutheran Church, “We are conducting regular worship services but with cautious spacing and sanitization measures and anticipate doing that for some time to come. Many of the other parts of congregational life remain closed down. I suspect we will begin Bible studies again soon, as those are small groups and we can have windows open.”

When asked when life will get back to normal at Forest Park Baptist Church, one of the elders, Sean Blaylock replied, “No one inside or outside the church truly knows the answer to this question.”

Not being able to predict the future — that’s one thing church leaders and business owners have in common. Nancy, a server at Louie’s Grill, on the one hand, is glad to be serving customers again. Louie’s now has plexiglass shields separating all the booths and staff members are all wearing masks.

On the other hand, the diner is only half full many days when customers, pre-pandemic, would be waiting in line for a table. Asked about when things would return to normal, she sighed and said, “One year. Maybe two. Who knows?”

In the midst of the grand-reopening celebration, Brown commented, “It will never be back to normal.”

She intended that comment to be realistic. During the pandemic the owner of the popular ice cream spot made several changes to keep up with a business climate that was changing. She installed a “factory” in the back of the shop where now she makes her own ice cream. She arranged for large cement lane barricades to block off three parking spots where she placed outdoor tables and chairs, and she reconfigured her staffing.

Rev. Stan Kuca is in some ways on the same page — adapting to change as creatively as possible. He finds himself the pastor of both St. Bernardine in Forest Park and St. Luke in River Forest and admitted that he, along with almost everyone else in town, has no crystal ball when it comes to predicting the future.

“It is hard to give you any honest answer when it comes to that,” he said, adding, “and I don’t know how ‘normal’ will look like and when it will come. God willing, soon.”