Highland Park launches new assistance program, matching grants for COVID-19 related operational expenses
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Surging COVID-19 cases across the state caused Gov. JB Pritzker to impose nearly statewide restrictions affecting bars and restaurants in recent days, and those in the industry worry if they can survive the shutdowns.
Indoor dining has been prohibited throughout much of the state. The closures began in Chicago Friday and go into effect Saturday in Lake and McHenry counties. The western suburbs are already facing the restrictions, and downstate Illinois is also affected, due to rising COVID-19 cases.
It's Deja Vu all over again for Steve Geffen after he's forced to shut down the dining room inside his Highland Park location of his Once Upon a Bagel restaurant because of a new temporary ban on in-person dining.
"It's definitely tough to have to go through this again," Geffen said. "We had just started building up our business again where we're having some people come inside and sit down. To start all over again, it's definitely rough."
The recent order is forcing establishments like Geffen's back to only take-out and delivery.
The measure went into effect Saturday and was imposed earlier this week after both Lake and McHenry counties saw the rolling average of their COVID-19 positivity rates surge to at least 8% for three consecutive days.
The reinstated restrictions have forced Chloe Mandel to make some tough choices when it comes to her plant-based cafe and lifestyle boutique Madame Zuzu's, which she opened in September.
"It's hard because we are already at a fraction of our capacity and we augmented our menu," she said. "We changed things around so we could thrive during these times, which are already hard enough."
The city of Highland Park is hoping to help struggling retailers and restaurants by launching a new assistance program that provides matching grants for COVID-19 related operational expenses.
The financial assistance for retailers and restaurants program (FARR) will give a maximum of $5,000 to retailers and a maximum of $10,000 for restaurants.
"To us, it is an investment in our local economy," said Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering. "Hopefully it will help them close whatever gaps they have."
But for North Shore resident Mark Leonard, this latest set of restrictions is just another reminder that the pandemic may be with us for a while.
"It's tough for everyone. It a once-in-a-generation type event," he said.
Restaurant industry leaders are warning of mass layoffs unless Pritzker relaxes those mitigation strategies.
The Illinois Restaurant Association has previously supported the governor on restrictions but is now standing against the state, supporting lawsuits filed by Illinois restaurants.
Dozens of McHenry County restaurants filed a lawsuit, challenging Pritzker's emergency powers, but a judge's order Friday sided with the governor.
A judge also rejected a lawsuit filed by a DuPage County restaurant owner.
As of now, the new restaurant and bar restrictions are only meant to last a few weeks. But some fear they will last much longer, becoming a death sentence for many Illinois restaurants.
The governor's order says, in designated regions, all restaurants and bars must stop indoor service. Outdoor service must stop at 11 p.m.
With the weather getting colder, outdoor dining is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, and the Illinois restaurant association fears a prolonged shutdown of indoor service could cost over 120,000 jobs.
But the governor is digging in on his decision, saying restaurants and bars have the potential to rapidly spread COVID-19.
"We are getting into territory that most of these hospitals had never seen before," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. "We do predict that there could be shortages in as short as two to four weeks."
But the restaurant industry feels singled out in the governor's new restrictions, arguing that it has safety measures in place to ensure dining in a restaurant will not be riskier than going to other businesses.
"Restaurants are in complete crisis," said Sam Toia, with the Illinois Restaurant Association. "They are scrambling to find solutions and are having painful conversations with their dedicated team members, many who they will no longer be able to employ this winter."
The Illinois Restaurant Association estimates that at least a fifth of the state's restaurants won't survive if shutdowns last for six months.
The industry is also calling for federal aid like the airline industry has received. But so far, Democrats and Republicans have failed to agree on the terms of more stimulus.