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Chicago Small Businesses Adapting to COVID-19 Regulations

By Caroline Pan and Melissa Solis |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020

Since the implementation of the lockdown in multiple states in early March, COVID-19 has caused many companies to go bankrupt and small businesses -- including many Chicago restaurants -- to close.

But others have survived through innovation and creativity. Daisies in Logan Square has  opened small markets indoors as a means to keep its team members employed. Bite Cafe closed its doors after 25 years and reopened as a pizzeria in order to remain in the neighborhood of Ukrainian Village. 

Tacotlan, a Mexican restaurant, has recently gone viral on TikTok for their famous birria tacos. The restaurant has been open for three years in the Hermosa neighborhood of on the Northwest Side. Its customers highly requested for them to bring back their original recipe for their birria tacos. And so they did.  

When it comes to keeping business alive, Jessica Perjes, manager of Tacotlan, said being creative is key.

“We continue to be innovative and listen to our customers in terms of what they want...we ask our customers what they wanted more of and what they wanted that we weren’t already doing,” she said.

In addition, there are still many self-employed or family-owned shops that have silently closed, which are difficult to count. They are the most direct "victims" of COVID-19. These shops are scattered all over the United States, and their closure usually does not cause too much attention, but they have really hurt families and individuals, highlighting the overall damage COVID-19 has caused to the US economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted local businesses in Chicago. With the city and state imposing regulations on alcohol and the number of individuals allowed in an enclosed space, many businesses have been forced to shut their doors.

The latest statewide COVID-19 regulations imposed by Gov. JB Pritzker on Oct. 30, include the closure of all liquor stores at 9 p.m. closure of bars without a retail food license, a business curfew for non-essential businesses in effect from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., and prohibiting indoor dining at all businesses with a retail food license. 

Among those Chicago businesses that have closed are Revolution Brewpub, Fountainhead, Guthries Tavern, Cafe Marie- Jeanne, City Lit Books, and many more. 

audio icon  Audio: Interview with Jason Zhang

In order to keep their team members employed, Perjes said they have heavily relied on social media to raise awareness of their restaurant. Prior to the indoor dining prohibition, Tacotlan was able to seat 10 tables of 4 people each. With these restrictions it has become harder for many restaurants to bring in enough revenue. 

I have relied a lot on social media to make sure that people don’t forget that we’re there. I post every single day, so people know that we’re open and that we need them to come and keep my people employed” Perjes said. 

People have been posting and sharing images of their items on their menu on every social media platform that Tacotlan is not on. This has been helping the mexican restaurant gain more customers. 

Jason Zhang was in the restaurant waiting for a pickup order, worries about dine-in during COVID-19.

"Many of my favorite restaurants have ceased operations," he said. "Some of them may be permanently closed. I am not sure, and others are just temporary. I am worried about dine-in. I basically order takeaways, such as through Ubereats. Of course, I will pick up the food sometimes if I'm close."

In addition, Zhang said social distancing is "not safe enough."

"Although the distance between customers is safe enough, the contact between the waiters and the chefs is unavoidable," he said. "I have even seen servers do not wear masks while serving. In fact, it seems that food delivery is not safe enough either. Yes, but there are no other methods for people like me, I don’t cook, this is my only way."

There are also some restaurants that have taken some protective measures against government restrictions. For example, after the introduction of the prohibition on indoor dining, some restaurants have prepared outdoor dining venues, but most of them still cannot effectively prevent the virus. 

As winter approaches, the restaurant adds plastic sheets to the outdoor dining area, which forms the same enclosed space as indoors, while customers have to endure the cold.

After interviewing customers of this type of restaurant, Brett Jesso said that this is completely meaningless and that such an outdoor dining environment is no different from indoors. 

audio icon  Audio: Interview with Brett Jesso

Jesso showed photos of McCormick and Schmicks in Naperville  that showed that its outdoor seating is still a closed space and the seating distance is very close. 

In contrast, some restaurants have taken more careful measures. For example, there is a restaurant in South Loop that has a separate outdoor dining space. As the weather gets colder, the addition of heating equipment is also planned. This is really for the sake of customers.

Danielle Addo, a Chicago resident, said she believes dining inside of restaurants and their patios is too risky because of the lack of masks being worn inside such establishments. Addo finds that ordering take out is the most effective and safe way to support a business while also flattening the curve.

audio icon  Audio: Interview with Danielle Addo 

There are some precautions that both restaurants and customers should follow:

  • Restaurants should require employees to wash their hands frequently (before, during, and after food preparation; after touching trash, anything unsanitary, etc.) and ensure that employees wear gloves while handling food. Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and increase monitoring to ensure adherence to these protocols. 

  • Postage of signs in conspicuous locations such as entrances, restrooms, hallways, to encourage employees and customers to take daily protective measures also helps increase awareness and limit the spread of COVID-19. 

  • On-site dining with indoor seating poses the highest risk of spread of COVID-19. Food service through methods such as drive-through, delivery, and take away methods present the lowest-risk of the virus according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If I do want to support a business or want to eat out, then I can make a takeout order and enjoy the food in my home knowing that not only am I protecting myself, but I am protecting my family and loved ones” says Addo. 

Your thoughts 

What are your preferred ways of supporting small businesses during the pandemic? Let us know in the comments below. 

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