Restaurants and the Road to Recovery in Illinois

What will restaurants look like once Illinois gets the go-ahead to reopen? NBC 5 Responds takes a look at what other states are doing and what may await diners here

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While plans to reopen Chicago-area eateries are still on hold, there are a few states that gave the green light to get back to business. Some restaurants won’t survive the pandemic, but the ones that do will have to reinvent their business model to exist.

What will that look like? What are other states doing to prepare, and will it work here?

From your favorite corner diner to well-known chains, there is no question that the restaurant industry – crippled by mandatory closures – is eager to get back to business.

Sam Toia, of the Illinois Restaurant Association, recognizes it may be a bumpy road back.

“It's not going to be just flip on the switch and 100% again,” Toia said.

Toia’s eyes are focused on the states a few steps ahead of Illinois and their lessons learned.

“We want to keep an eye on states like Georgia, Alaska, Tennessee and Texas and see what they do right, and what they do wrong,” Toia said.

While we wait, Massachusetts is mapping out its plan. Anxious to get back to normal, restaurant owner Paul Turano says he does have some reservations about opening his doors.

“I think our guests believe in us, and they have reached out and come out to get food and it’s great,” Turano said. “But sitting down next to another family, with children? I don't know.” 

Once the go-ahead is given, how will restaurants adapt from a public health perspective? 

Sam Scarpino, who works at Northeastern University’s Emergent Epidemics Lab, thinks social distancing is key.

“We would need to ensure the restaurant workers had adequate protection both for themselves and for the patrons, and that the restaurants would be able to operate in in such a way that you could still maintain physical distancing between individuals in the restaurants," he said.

So what might await diners when opening day arrives? Time limits on tables, one-way traffic patterns, single-use menus, distanced seating at the bar, no salad bars, buffets or self-service food, seniors-only dining hours and wait staff in masks and gloves. 

“It will take some of the pleasure out of going out to eat,” Turano said. “Everyone will be nervous. If someone sneezes, it's going to be an issue. If someone coughs, it's going to be an issue.”

While chairs are still stacked and bars are still bare, the Illinois Restaurant Association says things are happening behind the scenes.

“Obviously we're entering America 2.0,” Toia said. “We're working with the governor and his team and the mayor and her team, communicating about what we think could work for the restaurant industry.”

Even as the dire analysis predicts up to 25% of restaurants across the country will not re-open, Toia says there is still a sense of optimism in Chicago.

“We will beat this virus and when we do, Chicago will stay the culinary capital of the United States," he said.

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