by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producerBy CBS 2 Chicago Staff

CHICAGO (CBS) — For Chicago restaurants, providing enough safe seating for customers indoors and outdoors can be challenging enough in the time of COVID, even in the warmth of summer, so imagine how much bigger the challenge will get once winter arrives.

That’s why Mayor Lori Lightfoot has launched a contest encouraging Chicagoans to come up with solutions for winter outdoor dining, offering a $5,000 prize to winners in three categories: outdoor, standalone structures; indoor-adjacent spaces; and “cultural shifts making winter dining more appealing.”

“While we’ve had to implement restrictions and take hard measures to combat a recent rise in COVID-19 activity, we will continue to ensure our restaurants, bars and businesses have the supports they need to survive during these unprecedented times,” Lightfoot stated in a news release. “We are asking our community members to come together and think creatively about how we can make outdoor dining feasible in the winter.”

The city’s “Winter Design Challenge” is a partnership with design and consulting firm IDEO and BMO Harris Bank.

The contest will run from Tuesday through Sept. 7, and winners will be announced in mid-September, according to the mayor’s office.

Ideas can be submitted on IDEO’s website.

“Our restaurants and bars are the heart and soul of the city, and we must do everything possible to keep them operational during the harsh winter months,” said Sam Toia, President and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “We need out-of-the-box thinking to address the hardship facing our industry. The Winter Design Challenge demonstrates the City’s support of innovation in these trying times, and we look forward to ideas that are both creative and operationally attainable for our members.”

Earlier this year, the city’s restaurants and bars were forced to close for more than two months due to the pandemic, but were allowed to open to outdoor seating areas in early June. A few weeks later, indoor seating areas at bars and restaurants were allowed to open again, with strict capacity limits to allow for social distancing. Last month, however, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered bars that do not serve food to close indoor seating areas, after COVID cases started to rise again in Chicago.

This summer, the city has allowed restaurants in several neighborhoods to expand their outdoor dining areas onto the street on several weekends to expand outdoor dining options during the pandemic.