By Maria Maxham
Outdoor dining may return to Forest Park as soon as May 29, with restaurants that already have permits for outside service reopening that aspect of their business and those not permitted being given special permission by the village.
On May 20, Governor J. B. Pritzker announced that restaurants and bars will most likely be allowed to reopen for outdoor seating on May 29, when phase three of the Reopen Illinois plan is supposed to begin. Originally, the plan specified that eating and drinking establishments would be prohibited from opening until phase four, but Pritzker introduced an earlier option.
"Epidemiologists now believe that summer offers us an opportunity," said Pritzker in his daily briefing. "Today, I'm announcing an additional option for bars and restaurants interested in resuming operations early, opening for outdoor seating when phase three begins likely for everyone just nine days from now."
Forest Park village officials and chamber members were already discussing the option of opening up portions of Madison Street or surrounding streets to allow restaurants more seating when phase four began. But they've sped up talks in light of Pritzker's news.
Prior to the governor's announcement, in a phone meeting on May 15 that included Mayor Rory Hoskins, Village Administrator Tim Gillian, Director of Building and Zoning Steve Glinke, a local architect and at least one Madison Street property owner, the feasibility of such an idea was discussed.
"We will survey the businesses to see if they'd like more outdoor space," said Hoskins in an interview on May 18. "We have the authority to close the streets, but what we ultimately do will depend on what the businesses want."
After Pritzker's press conference bumping up the date for outdoor dining, Hoskins reiterated that the village's decisions will be based on what the businesses want and need.
"We want the businesses to succeed," said Hoskins in a phone interview on May 20. "We'll be as flexible as we can."
He said plans haven't been formalized for exactly what outside dining would look like for restaurants not already permitted for it, but the village is open to several different options. For example, said Hoskins, The Brown Cow owner Connie Brown asked if she could potentially put seating outside in parking spots on Madison Street to allow customers sit-down capability.
"I said 'Yes'," said Hoskins. "If it's something that helps our businesses survive, we'll do our best to accommodate."
While zoning and permitting for such things would typically take time, Hoskins said the executive authority allowed to him through the emergency declaration gives him the flexibility to act more quickly than normal.
"But I would never make a decision like this without input and guidance from Tim Gillian and Steve Glinke," said Hoskins.
To help visualize and plan for the possibility of opening up Madison Street, Hoskins has enlisted the help of Forest Park resident and architect Scott Whitebone.
Uniform seating might be a consideration, said Hoskins. Music pumped into the street. Ambient lighting. Hand sanitizing stations. Though just ideas at this point, Hoskins said an architect behind the project could help ensure a consistent look and feel to the downtown business district.
Whitebone said the most important thing he can do for the village during this new phase of reopening is to listen to what the businesses want and need.
"I can help visualize, through sketching up quick site plans, which can help drive decisions," said Whitebone in a phone interview.
But like Hoskins, he said that surveying the business owners will be the most important part of the process. There are, he said, so many options for how outdoor dining and seating could look.
"Would we just close Madison Street on the weekends?" he said "Or have seating in village parking lots? It doesn't make sense to start planning it if the businesses are not into it."
There are, he said, multiple considerations for opening up Madison Street to outdoor dining, such as how to make seating and tables consistent along the street or making sure pedestrian traffic could be accommodated. Ensuring proper social distancing is essential, as is keeping sidewalks ADA compliant.
What would signage look like? Where would parking be, if restaurants were using street parking spots to serve food?
Another option, said Whitebone, is booths, marketplace-style. He mentioned that there are businesses on Roosevelt Road that would like to be a part of a planned reopening as well. An open market on Madison would allow them to do that.
"There are lots of options," said Whitebone. "I will design sketches to help make those decisions."
Knowing what, exactly, would help the businesses will drive planning. "It's essential to have a clear picture of what the businesses need before putting out a final design," said Whitebone. He added: "The businesses are the experts."
Bridget Lane, co-chair of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce's Economic Development Committee (EDC) with Dan Watts, reiterated Whitebone's assertion that what will drive the project to open Madison Street to outdoor dining will be what the businesses want.
"This has been the most challenging situation many businesses have faced," said Lane. "It's impressive how they've adapted."
The EDC, she said, wants to help Forest Park businesses succeed, and wants to do it with the health and safety of residents and businesses in mind.
"Safety is the number one priority," said Lane. "We want to ensure that Forest Park is the safest place in the suburbs to go. But after that? We have to be fun! People need to start to have fun again."
And working with the village has been a fulfilling experience.
"The mayor has been amazing," said Lane. "I'm really excited about the relationship we have with the village."
Lane added: "We will move heaven and earth to help our businesses succeed, but within the confines of what's safe."
On May 24, Governor J. B. Pritzker released specific requirements related to outdoor dining in the state of Illinois. A few items of note:
- Employees must wear face masks over their nose and mouth when within six feet of others.
- Customers should wear face masks at restaurants except while eating and drinking at the table.
- Tables must be spaced at a minimum of six feet from each other, and use of plexiglass between tables is encouraged.
- Hand washing or sanitizer must be provided to employees and customers.
- At a minimum, employees should wash hands for 20 seconds every 30 minutes.
- Employers should make temperature checks available to employees and encourage their use.
- Outdoor dining can include indoor space where 50 percent or more of a wall can be removed via the opening of windows, doors or panels.
The full list of guidelines can be found at dceocovid19resources.com/assets/Restore-Illinois/businessguidelines3/restaurantbars.pdf.
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