Foot traffic in downtown Chicago is getting closer to pre-pandemic levels, another sign that the city, and the state, are gearing up for a full reopening later this week.
Chicago’s Loop Alliance has been tracking downtown data since last July, and according to a May report, digital parking bookings exceeded 2019 levels for the first time. Pedestrian activity continued a gradual climb to 45% of normal, and hotel occupancy is back to 38%.
The data also reveals office building occupancy is still low compared to other metrics but has exceeded 20% for the first time since the pandemic hit.
“People are coming downtown. They’re eating in, they’re eating outside, shopping, visiting attractions already and the theaters aren’t even open yet,” said Michael Edwards, the president and CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance. “The pandemic is certainly not over, and we have a long way to go, but people feel pretty good.”
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Downtown attractions are preparing to reopen at full capacity Friday when the city of Chicago moves into Phase 5 of reopening. Food tour operators say logistical headaches will be alleviated.
“We’re managing 50 restaurants around the city. All of those have had capacity issues that have been difficult to navigate,” said Jeremy Lewno, the founder of Bobby’s Bike Hike. “We’ve made it work, but we’re excited to see June 11 come around.”
Last year, the biking, walking and food tour company operated with only 10% of its normal revenue. Now, business is booming, so much so that Lewno says it’s been tough to keep up with demand and hard to hire staff.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised and a little bit overwhelmed,” said Lewno. “With the higher demand, there’s going to be that much more pressure put on restaurants and service-based industries like ourselves.”
Hiring staff back has also been a challenge at area restaurants. Sunda New Asian Restaurant in River North reopens Wednesday night after a nearly year-long hiatus. They were open intermittently throughout the pandemic but also dealt with damage during summer looting and a burst pipe last winter.
“These are things restaurateurs have been fighting with. It’s not just us, it’s everyone,” said Sunda founder, Billy Dec. “We are finally getting a full staff together, but we have open spaces. Had we gotten staff in a little sooner, we would have been open a couple weeks ago.”
Dec calls what’s happening with staffing in the industry, a ‘perfect storm.’
“A lot of people in the hospitality industry were off so long they found their way into other industries and into other cities and states,” said Dec. “It becomes very hard to fill already declining employment [that was] occurring five years even before the pandemic.”
Despite the many challenges, Dec and others are optimistic about the summer tourism season. At Shoreline Sightseeing, the boat charters will soon be seated at 100%.
“It feels like Christmas morning. We are so excited to open fully,” said Laura Decker, the company’s event manager. “Last year was extremely challenging. We lost about 85% of our revenue. Friday could not come soon enough.”
The company docked all water taxis last summer and stopped private events. Both have resumed in 2021.
Capacity limits will be lifted in all sectors of the economy under Phase Five. Fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks in most places. Individual businesses can still choose to require them.