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Chicago Restaurants Creating Sprawling, All-Season Patios In Effort To Survive Coronavirus Pandemic

By installing features like retractable roofs and large windows, restaurants are creating more useable space for customers dining out.

The rooftop at Roots Handmade Pizza at 744 S. Dearborn St.
Provided/Fifty/50 group
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DOWNTOWN — With indoor dining limited, Chicago restaurants have majorly revamped their outdoor spaces to welcome more customers.

At Il Culaccino, 2134 S. Indiana Ave. in the South Loop, owner Frank Ruffolo converted his outdoor private event space into a patio with a retractable roof and heating and cooling system. The area can seat 120 people and has become the restaurant’s main source of revenue during the pandemic.

“I’m very happy that we have the private event space and that we were able to turn this … into our year-round patio, because it’s really the only way you could adapt right now,” Ruffolo said.

Ruffolo worked with Viewpoint Systems, a company based in suburban Burr Ridge that is helping restaurants redesign their outdoor spaces to accommodate health restrictions and maximize business.

Viewpoint Systems President Jeff Pavlatos said business has increased as restaurants seek options to make it through the pandemic. Viewpoint creates outdoor spaces that can serve customers even when bad weather hits, said Greg Flynn, the company’s head of sales.

“We’re trying to capitalize on the market there to give restaurants and hospitality groups a full-year-round use operation, which is seemingly more critical during the pandemic,” Flynn said.

Viewpoints has worked with restaurants such as Beatnik in West Town, Athena in Greektown and City Winery on the Riverwalk, Pavlatos and Flynn said.

Pavlatos said proper ventilation and fresh air is critical for the outdoor spaces they build to protect the health of patrons and staff.

Officials have repeatedly said being outside — with fresh, flowing air — is safer than being inside with recirculated air as it lessens the spread of coronavirus. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the air-conditioning in a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, was responsible for spreading the virus to 10 customers.

Credit: Greg Flynn/Provided
Il Culaccino is an Italian restaurant in the South Loop.

Scott Weiner, owner of Roots Pizza in Printers Row, said customers feel more comfortable dining in outdoor patios. Roots’ new outdoor space, built by Viewpoints, has allowed the restaurant to continue making money.

“While we still had to lower what our real seating capacity would be …we’ve definitely been able to capture more revenue as a result of this,” Weiner said. “I think from a public perception standpoint, people do feel a lot safer because they essentially are dining outdoors.”

City officials reopened restaurants and bars to indoor dining and drinking at a limited capacity during Phase 4 of the coronavirus recovery plan. Several weeks later, however, the Mayor’s Office announced bars and breweries without a food license could no longer serve customers indoors due to an uptick in new cases in Chicago.

Even before the pandemic, Roots Pizza — which opened July 10 — had planned to add a retractable roof and large open windows to make the second floor of the restaurant an entirely outdoor space.

“Timing to open up a restaurant during COVID probably couldn’t be worse, but in regards to maximizing the amount of seats that we can have with the current restrictions, it did work out in our favor,” Weiner said.

Ruffolo said restaurants are hoping to serve as many people as they can in the safest way possible.

“So as long as people are ready to go, we’re ready to serve you,” he said.

Read all of Block Club’s coverage on outdoor dining here.

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