WEST LOOP — As Chicago moves into Phase 3 of its cautious reopening plan after the coronavirus pandemic, bar owners say they are being left behind.
In what was described as a “lifeline” to the beleaguered industry, the city’s Committee on License and Consumer Protection on Monday advanced an ordinance that would allow for the delivery and pickup of cocktails from bars and restaurants in a sealed container. The measure follows a state law that allows the boozy orders, and needs to be passed by the full City Council next week before it goes into effect.
But some in the industry say cocktails-to-go aren’t enough to keep them in business — especially as booze now flows freely on restaurant patios across the city. While bars and breweries in the rest of the state can open, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not allowed Chicago bars to open unless they serve food.
“If bars have food service, then they will be able to open up right away,” Lightfoot said in a May 29 news conference. “But bars aren’t the same as
restaurants. People, as we all know, lose their inhibitions when they’re drinking. And it’s more difficult, I think, for them to follow the social distancing guidance.”
Industry leaders reject the premise that people imbibing on restaurant patios are able to handle their liquor better than those who want to grab a beer in a bar’s beer garden or brewery’s patio. They want the city to allow breweries without an outdoor seating permit to get creative in expanding into parking lots and nearby sidewalks.
“The city is not requiring people to get food at restaurants, so we don’t understand what the difference is between someone going to a restaurant, sitting down … ordering a drink, and coming here and doing the same thing,” said Hagen Dost, co-owner of Dovetail Brewery, 1800 W. Belle Plaine Ave. in North Center’s Malt Row.
Dost is asking the city to create a temporary pilot program to allow breweries like his to create outdoor space to serve customers. He’s envisioning tables spaced 6 feet apart, limiting people to reserving a table in blocks of 75 minutes, allowing time for staff to sanitize all tables as they turnover and partnering with food trucks to encourage people to eat while drinking.
Otherwise, breweries risk folding, Dost said. Taproom sales accounted for nearly two-thirds of Dovetail’s revenue last year, he said. They’ve been forced to expand their wholesale business this year, but they had their worst week in their history last week and fear that trend will continue as people now have the option of drinking on a restaurant patio.
“We want to be given every possible chance to … remain a viable business,” he said.
Julia Momose, co-founder of Cocktails For Hope, which lobbied the state and city to create laws allowing for to-go mixed drinks, said the ordinance will make a “huge difference” for her cocktail bar Kumiko in Fulton Market.
The law will allow her to split a bottle of gin into 16 cocktails that sell at $10, a “low price for Chicago standards,” and earn $160 in sales versus the $30 she might sell the bottle for wholesale.
But she said it’s just one part of the puzzle in limiting the amount of bar and restaurant closures in the city.
“I don’t think there’s any one thing that is enough,” she said. “Getting [Paycheck Protection Program funding] is not enough, getting to-go is not enough and doing patio sales is not enough. Each of these things together though, can become enough.”
On Monday night, popular industry Twitter account @chicagobars noted that Navy Pier, a destination known for being packed with tourists, will be allowed to reopen before Chicago’s bars are.
“Ok F*CK THIS. EVERY CHICAGO TAVERN IS SAFER THAN NAVY PIER,” the person tweeted.
Pat Doerr of the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago said the city should “adopt the same Phase 3 as the state of Illinois, which would allow [bars and breweries] to open their outdoor spaces, as well as socially distanced tables within 8 feet of large windows” or garage-door style exteriors, he said.
Lightfoot “indicated she seems to think people won’t be able to control themselves,” Doerr said. “But most of the impacted taverns and tap rooms impacted by this arbitrary decision are people who owned their places for years, decades, and they didn’t own them for decades by ignoring health and safety, and they won’t now.”
When asked about the status of bars on Monday, Lightfoot said “our view on bars really hasn’t changed … those are high risk circumstances.”
Dost said city tavern and brewery owners are desperate to stay open — and would be sure to enforce social distancing knowing their livelihoods depend on it.
“We’ve shown we’re responsible business operators,” he said. “We’re asking them to trust us to follow their rules.”
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