by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer

CHICAGO (CBS) — With restaurants in Chicago relying solely on outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery for the next few weeks, the city will soon expedite sidewalk café permits, under an ordinance approved by the City Council Committee on Transportation and Public Way.

The measure would allow the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to issue permits to any business that meets the requirements, without first needing City Council approval. The expedited permit process would expire next March.

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That process typically takes weeks, as the committee votes once a month on dozens of sidewalk café applications, but BACP Commissioner Rosa Escareno said the department now will be able to approve permits within 5 to 10 business days of receiving all the necessary paperwork.

The ordinance also reduces the application fee by 75%, which Escareno said will save businesses at least $450, and potentially thousands of dollars. Sidewalk café permit fees are based on the size of the café and the value of the land it occupies.

The measure will allow restaurants to more easily serve food outdoors during Phase 3 of the city’s reopening plan. For more than two months, restaurants in Chicago had been limited to curbside pickup or delivery only, until last week when the city allowed them to open outdoor dining areas.

“We have asked so much of our business community over the past months, and so the time to act to support them is now,” Escareno said.

In addition to fast-tracking sidewalk café permits, the ordinance would establish rules for restaurants seeking to expand their sidewalk cafés into the street, or onto neighboring private property, under the city’s “Our Streets” plan to close six city streets to through traffic this summer and allow restaurants to expand outdoor dining.

“We know that sidewalk cafés are not the option for many restaurants, and this is why we have also worked very closely with our partners at the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to quickly stand up the expanded outdoor dining permit program,” Escareno said.

Under the ordinance, businesses that expand sidewalk cafés onto the street or onto neighboring private property would have to carry insurance for the entire café, and would not be allowed to obstruct the view of a neighboring property’s windows or block their doors. Sidewalk cafés also could not be expanded onto property owned by another retail food or liquor establishment.

Businesses that expand their outdoor dining areas onto private property also would have to notify their neighbor of their application for a permit.

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi said city officials will work with applicants to make sure their expanded outdoor dining areas do not block the local traffic that will be allowed on the six streets included in the program.

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“What we want to do is sit down and look at it together. We do want to make sure that, one, we can still get emergency access. We like to keep the curb lane open if we can, but I think we’re trying to be really flexible here. As long as we can get traffic through where we need to, in terms of emergency vehicles, that’s totally the purpose of having the street option,” Biagi said.

Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), whose ward includes the busy 26th Street business corridor, said the city’s restaurant industry badly needs as much help as it can get from the city during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The restaurants there really are the core of that business district. They’ve been in business, many of them, for over 40 years. Multi generations of families own those businesses. They’re such a rock for our community, and many of them are considering closing at this point,” he said.

During the committee meeting on Thursday, several aldermen also called on the Lightfoot administration to city to allow bars and taverns that don’t serve food to open outdoor seating.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has resisted allowing businesses that serve only alcohol the same loosened restrictions as eateries, arguing people drinking without dining at the same time would be less likely to follow social distancing guidelines.

However, Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said if bars and taverns aren’t allowed to open with outdoor seating, just like restaurants, people will simply order cocktails to go, and go drinking elsewhere. He said it would be better to have them drinking at a bar where staff can monitor their behavior, and cut them off if needed.

“It will alleviate the problem of people taking the newly legal cocktails-to-go, and just going anywhere; going to picnic groves, or anyplace that there’s a bench,” he said. “In the nice weather like this weekend, people are going to want to drink outside, and if we don’t have controlled, staffed environments that taverns are operating, people are going to take their drinks to go, and they’re going to make their own, and we don’t want that. We’re not the French Quarter. We don’t want people walking all over with their plastic hurricane cups.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) agreed that, as long as bars and taverns commit to enforcing the same social distancing guidelines as restaurants during Phase 3 of the reopening plan, they should get a chance to prove they can keep customers in line.

“I don’t think anyone is advocating for people to stack up at a bar, and just throw back shots all night in close proximity; but if those taverns are willing to adhere to the very same distancing rules, reservation rules, every butt in a seat rule, it seems that science would allow for that to be a safe practice,” he said.

The ordinance expediting sidewalk café permits and setting rules to expand outdoor dining areas onto streets and neighboring private property now goes to the full City Council for a final vote next week.

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