The Sheraton Grand, one of Chicago's five largest hotels, reopened Monday after a 15-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. Five of the hotel's longest serving employees re-cut the ribbon to the mark the occasion.
"Today we start anew," said the hotel's general manager, Mark Lauer. "We start again to rebuild our hotel and help rebuild our city."
City officials were on hand for the ribbon-cutting and say it's a sure sign Chicago is open for business.
"2020 was a year of closure, of pain of sorrow. But 2021 is a year of hope," said Samir Mayekar, the deputy mayor of economic development. "This Friday we will be the largest open city in America."
According to the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, more than 50 Chicago hotels closed during the pandemic, putting more than 20,000 people out of work. Nearly all will be reopen by July 1.
"It’s going to be a gradual rebuild," said Michael Jacobson, the president and CEO of IHLA. "You can’t start a recovery without one step forward, and that's what we're seeing with today's reopening of the Sheraton."
The historic Hilton Chicago is also preparing to reopen this week. General manager John Wells said 200 staffers are returning. Comparatively, the hotel usually employees up to 1,000 people between full-time and part-time staff.
"We’re excited. It’s not the full load we used to have, but it’s going to be a gradual process. As the city continues to reopen, so will we," said Wells.
Hilton will reopen its doors Thursday, one day before Chicago and Illinois move into Phase 5 of reopening on Friday. Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask in most cases, and all sectors of the economy can resume at regular capacity.
As restrictions are relaxed, more vendors are moving back into their kitchens at the French Market, Chicago’s first food hall. Currently, 22 of 33 vendors have resumed service.
"This is our first week back; it’s really exciting to be here," said Steven Lawrence, a managing partner of Lito’s Empanadas in the market.
Now that he and his staff are fully vaccinated, Lawrence feels comfortable opening again.
"The French Market is really like a family. People who've been here have been here for years," said Lawrence. "We’ve seen them struggle over this past year, so it’s just an indescribably wonderful feeling to be back."
Phase 5 removes requirements that businesses institute mandatory social distancing in seated venues as well as daily health screenings of employees and visitors. Although, individual businesses may choose to still implement extra safety protocol. Phase 5 also marks the return of festivals, large events and conventions.
Leisure travel will be a much-needed boost for the hospitality industry, but experts say conventions and corporate meetings are the key to a full recovery.
"That’s what’s going to take the longest of any segment to return. Until that return, we won’t have a full recovery, and we do anticipate it will take a couple of years," said Jacobsen.