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Some City Officials Urge ‘A Little Flexibility’ On Coronavirus Restrictions To Support Businesses

The city's business department is looking for more ways to help Chicago's entrepreneurs amid a second wave of coronavirus.

City Mouse, a restaurant inside the Ace Hotel, 311 N. Morgan St., closed permanently.
City Mouse/Instagram
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CHICAGO — Measures to support businesses need to be extended into 2021 as Chicago is in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus, aldermen and city officials agreed Tuesday.

But some aldermen worried the measures will be less effective in the cold of Chicago’s winter and questioned whether restrictions from the city and state are too harsh on the hospitality industry.

Over the spring and summer, the city removed barriers to sidewalk permits, set up expanded outdoor dining spaces and extended the deadline to renew expiring business licenses, all in an effort to limit business closures due to the pandemic.

Those measures should continue into 2021, Rosa Escareno, commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, told aldermen during a Tuesday budget hearing. She said she’ll work with City Council on those efforts.

“Not only the license deferral into 2021, but also to extend our public way program … as well as the expanded outdoor dining and also other possible ways to support businesses. We’re working on that and we’ll have something that we can present to you in the coming weeks,” she said.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) welcomed the idea of continuing the programs — but he also urged Escareno to find more ways to support businesses.

“If you can continue to keep an open mind about things that we think or hear from businesses, that will help us get through the pandemic,” he said. “We can be a very regulated city for all the right reasons, but a little flexibility to help businesses survive … is really needed.”

Businesses across the city were hurt by the pandemic and struggled with restrictions like the months-long stay at home order.

While restrictions have been lifted in many industries, bars and restaurants have faced stricter rules since experts say indoor dining and drinking makes it easier for COVID-19 to spread. Many restauranteurs are worried they won’t be able to make it through the winter without indoor service.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) criticized the city and state restrictions on bars and restaurants, saying they’re “haphazard.”

“It’s frustrating for the bars and restaurants, especially in the border wards, to see all of these other businesses open and flourishing while they are on the verge of bankruptcy,” he said. “Our patchwork of rules and orders are slowly killing one of the biggest employers in the city of Chicago.”

Reilly said some hotels are profiting “off the fact that bars and restaurants have been closed” by looking away when guests host large parties.

“Lots of kids are coming down here and renting out these hotel rooms on the weekends, and these aren’t parties of five or six people, we’re talking 60, 70, 80 people,” he said.  “On top of that, all of the AirBnB parties that are being thrown, nevermind the private residence parties being thrown.

“Huge groups, totally unregulated, no masks, no distancing, spreader events.”

Escareno said her department and the Mayor’s Office are working with the Police Department and the Hotel Lodging Association to crack down on large hotel gatherings.

“It is really their job as operators of these establishments to ensure that they’re stepping up with security and preventing these issues from happening,” she said. “They are on our radar and our staff is going out to address these issues, so we’re on top of it as much as we can.”

Throughout the meeting, Escareno highlighted the $100 million in grants already awarded by the city to struggling businesses and pointed to a new round of $10,000 hospitality grants that began accepting applications Tuesday.

In 2021, further grants could be provided if there’s another round of federal coronavirus relief under President-elect Joe Biden, Escareno said.

Escareno said her department had issued 400 citations related to businesses not complying with coronavirus restrictions, but stressed only businesses that flagrantly flout the rules receive a citation, not those where investigators find one or two people not wearing a mask.

Officials have said they want to educate business owners into compliance rather than fining them or pulling their licenses, since those could lead to permanent closures.

“Our investigators are issuing more ‘notices to correct” than they’re issuing violations,” Escareno said. “If we come in and there’s a couple of people not wearing masks, we’re not going to cite the business, we’re not going to do that. But if we’re walking into a massive party like we’ve been doing … or the business owner is literally talking with no mask with 10 people around the bar with no masks, then that’s a problem.”

Escareno said her department is also looking at cleaning up the city’s rules for businesses and looking at policies for home-based business licenses in hopes of providing more “support in that area.”

“We are looking at ways, not only to reopen the marketplace in new ways, but also how do we eliminate old, outdated regulations that maybe are no longer needed,” Escareno said.

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