QUINCY — Restaurateurs in Quincy say they sprang into action after hearing from Gov. J.B. Pritzker that bars and restaurants could reopen outdoor seating areas next week.
"My immediate reaction was surprise, because it was happening before I thought it would," said Brad Dunn, owner and chef at Dunnbelly Bar and Bistro, 4403 Broadway. "I thought it would be until at least June before we saw this kind of reopening."
As the state proceeds into the next phase of the governor's "Restore Illinois" plan, Pritzker said bars and restaurants can begin offering dine-in eating on May 29 but they must continue adhering to recommendations from public health officials, including putting tables 6 feet apart, employees wearing masks and using distancing measures for staff.
"We have a lot to work to do to be ready for that day," Dunn said. "A lot of people don't realize it, but there is a lot of work for us to do in order for us to transition from one phase of our business into another. We have to get orders in, get our employees on a schedule again, develop menus," Dunn said.
Across town, Linda French said she and her staff also were hastily preparing Que-Town Bar-B-Que and Brews, which moved from the Quincy Mall to 120 S. 10th.
French, one of the restaurant's owners, said the business plans to open next week and will be limiting the patio seating to 10 people. It normally holds 30.
Jon Meckler, general manager at Chick's On the River, 236 N. Front, said staff were power washing patio tables on Thursday in preparation for reopening.
"The challenge for us is that we only have five tables out on the patio, so are we going to be able to seat everyone who wants to come on Friday or Saturday night for a drink or for dinner?" Meckler said. "We are just very limited on space."
Meckler said he was meeting with employees on Thursday to plan a strategy for how the patio would reopen.
Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said at Pritzker's briefing on Wednesday that outdoor seating will not be a solution for every restaurant, but it will be "a benefit to many at a time when every dollar counts."
Toia said that more than half of Illinois restaurants have closed during the stay-at-home order, plummeting sales by 70% to 80% and putting 321,000 employees out of work.
In Quincy, restaurateurs are reporting mixed results. Some have seen sales sour beyond expectations as customers used carry-out and delivery options. Other owners say sales, including carry-out and delivery, pale in comparison to the level of sales they had during this time in 2019.
Toia called Pritzker's announcement a "step in the right direction" that gives restaurants a chance to get creative.
"Let's close down streets. Let's expand sidewalk cafes. Let's use parking lots and public ways," he said. "Let's show the world how innovative Illinois can be."
Quincy Mayor Kyle Moore said that he and other city leaders met on Thursday with department heads to plan a series of guidelines that would allow bars and restaurants to temporarily expand outdoor seating areas.
"We were pleasantly surprised by the governor's announcement yesterday," Moore said on Thursday. "Obviously, we feel that it is a step in the right direction for our bars and restaurants to be able to seat customers in their outdoor spaces."
He said the city will take a "very nimble approach" when it comes to responding to requests from bar and restaurant owners to add seating.
"We want to make it as easy as possible for our business owners to think outside the box and to come up with some solutions that work for their business," Moore said. He did not mention specific guidelines but did say that the city may consider agreeing to street closing if certain criteria are met and if the Quincy City Council voted to approve the closing.
Moore's words were welcome news to Meckler, French and Dunn.
"With us being on the river, there is not a lot of traffic here, so we would be interested in seeing what the city will let us do with putting tables on the sidewalks and what they think about closing the street," Meckler said.
French agreed, saying that if allowed, her business could convert its sizable parking lot into a temporary dining space. Customers would use off-street parking.
At Dunnbelly Bar and Bistro, Dunn said Wednesday's announcement and Moore's promise of more information were "something to consider," especially if the stay-at-home order continues through the summer.
"It is going to give people the opportunity to be outside, to return to some semblance of normalcy," Dunn said. "Luckily, our property has a great patio already, so we have some space, but I imagine that a lot of restaurants are limited on the space and would be very appreciative of what they are proposing. I think it is going to help a lot of restaurants."
Even with expanded seating, restaurateurs know their next task is persuading a potentially skeptical public to dine out again.
"If you're not comfortable dining out, our take-out option is always going to be available," Dunn said. "For those who are on the fence, know that we are doing everything in our power to be sanitary, even more than normal. We've taken many additional precautions and will continue to take precautions as we reopen, including wearing masks and using single-use menus."