Make Way for Outdoor Dining

Chicago’s Steps to COVID Safe Dining

Scarlett Pencak

More stories from Scarlett Pencak


 One positive thing to come out of COVID-19 has been the improvement of outdoor dining in Chicago. Outdoor seating and patio dining is fundamental to Chicago summers, and as the city began to open up back in June, Governor J.B. Pritizker worked hard to bring this summer staple back. 

        The re-opening of restaurants and bars, with outdoor seating, proved successful as customers and employees alike followed the parameters set by the governor. Rain or shine, Chicagoans were excited to get back outside and begin enjoying their summers. Areas like the Gold Coast and Fulton’s Market thrived with this new improvement, however restaurants with no outdoor seating continued to struggle. 

        The Make Way program allowed restaurants in Andersonville to begin outdoor dining in a new way. Eater Chicago reported, “[The Make Way program] allows restaurants without patios to seat customers while increasing the capacities for restaurants already with outdoor options,” Ashok Selvam reported. As many restaurants struggled in the beginning of quarantine and were forced to close their doors, this new addition of street seating was able to get many restaurants back on their feet. 

        The Make Way program has now expanded past Andersonvillie and has been implemented all around the Chicago area. The city has been blocking traffic from streets in popular areas to ‘make way’ for this outdoor dining experience. The city has been calling these Slow Streets and Cafe Streets. While the Cafe Streets have expanded the outdoor dining experience a Slow Street is for residential areas. John Greenfield wrote, “the city of Chicago’s proposal to build a permanent traffic-calmed ‘neighborhood greenway,” in his Streetsblog Chicago article. These two innovations to our streets came hand in hand in the end June. 

         The Fulton Market area has a history of being filled with summer-hotspot restaurants, and it has been exceedingly busy now with it’s additional seating through The Make Way program and Cafe Streets. The Chicago Sun Times reports, “Fulton Market Street will remain closed seven days a week through December as part of an effort to expand outdoor dining to help struggling West Loop restaurants,” David Struett explained. Currently, Chicago restaurants are able to be filled to 25% capacity inside, thus, the extension of the outdoor dining with Cafe Streets in the Fulton Market area is essential. 

      For restaurants like Swift & Sons on Fulton Market St. the Cafe Streets have made an obvious, positive, direct impact. Owner Phil Walters said, “We were limited to 25% capacity (indoors), and Swift & Sons, a 400-seat restaurant, went down to like 50 seats.” He continued, “With outdoor dining, we get 100 seats back, but we’re still below 50% capacity.” Although this is only a small number compared to how many people the restaurant would normally seat, this improvement has saved his restaurants and many others like it. 

One critique of the city’s Make Way program is it’s exclusion of restaurants in struggling and low income neighborhoods. The majority of the Cafe Streets are in areas like the Gold Coast, Fulton Market, and Lincoln Park, areas with busy nightlife and expensive restaurants. Many restaurants in the lower income areas have had no choice but to shut down, thus, the addition of Cafe Streets would be immensely helpful.

      With cold weather and winter approaching, there will have to be changes to the way outdoor dining is currently being done. Restaurants will have to purchase tents setting them back thousands of dollars on top of everything they have already lost.

      The end of August, a Winter Design Challenge was announced in which participants can write a proposal on how to make outdoor dining a possibility this winter. The city is asking, “How might we stimulate and encourage safe outdoor dining and entertainment during cold weather in Chicago?” 

      According to the Chicago Tribune, “All proposals for in-person outdoor dining must adhere to COVID-19 protocols and guidelines, and designers are asked to consider customers, restaurants workers, construction trade workers, and all other jobs associated in making a restaurant tick,” Grace Wong revealed. The three winners will be announced on September 29 and will win a $5,000 cash prize and will qualify for a corporate funded pilot opportunity to apply their ideas.

      Hopefully the Winter Design Challenge will result in a continuation of outdoor dining through the cold weather and will ‘make way’ for new possibilities of social distancing.