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Photograph: John Stoffer

When will Chicago bars reopen? The answer is more complicated than you’d expect.

Even after the state's stay-at-home order lifts, many bar owners will be left in a tough spot.

Morgan Olsen
Written by
Morgan Olsen

Update: In a press conference on Tuesday, May 5, Gov. Pritzker revealed a five-phase plan for reopening Illinois in which bars and restaurants would be able to reopen with limited capacity in Phase 4, dubbed "Revitalization." To reach this phase, there will need to be a continued decline in the rate of confirmed cases. It's worth noting, too, that during Phase 4 gatherings will be limited to 50 people or fewer. As of May 6, every region of Illinois is in Phase 2 of Pritzker's plan. 

When Chicago bars were ordered to temporarily shutter in March, no one knew exactly how long they would remain closed. As days turn into weeks and weeks continue to mount, many Chicagoans are left wondering: How soon after the Illinois "stay-at-home" order lifts will my favorite corner bar reopen?

Believe it or not, bar owners throughout the city are stuck agonizing over the same question.

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"When our local government feels comfortable lifting the 'stay-at-home' order, there will still be many hurdles to overcome in the process of reopening," says Wade McElroy, co-founder of Leisure Activities, the group behind Logan Square bars Young American, Ludlow Liquors and Estereo. "Will capacity be limited? Almost certainly. Will people want to get out and socialize? Undoubtedly. But it will come with all new rules and plenty of hesitation."

Though bar operators can start to theorize what rules and regulations might make sense in their communal spaces, it's nearly impossible to prepare without official national- or state-mandated guidance. For Ed Marszewski, co-founder of Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar, the future of his Bridgeport watering hole resembles a scene from a sci-fi flick.

"Everyone will have to wear masks and gloves. Sanitizer will be everywhere," Marszewski says. "Restaurants and bars will look like the set of Blade Runner without all the retro futurist aesthetics. All in all, not a pretty or comforting environment."

McElroy envisions similar precautions when he peers into the crystal ball, noting that patrons might have their temperature checked at the door, be confined to an assigned seat and pay more for drinks due to new restrictions and capacity limitations. Bartenders probably won't use as many garnishes and will have to be more diligent than ever before about keeping a clean bar.

Perhaps the most accurate glimpse into the future is what's happening right now in Hong Kong, where restaurants have already resumed service and bars will follow suit on May 7. According to Time Out Hong Kong editor Tatum Ancheta, most eateries are operating at half their original capacity, and tables are arranged about five feet apart. Temperature checks and complimentary hand sanitizer are commonplace, and diners must don masks before and after they eat.

For Chicago bar owners who operate already tight venues—like Mike Miller's Delilah's in Lincoln Park—the idea of spacing out guests is a logistical nightmare.

"It is not very realistic to think that we can socially distance at Delilah’s, and I refuse to have my team or customers be at risk," Miller says, noting that mass-testing and a vaccine would have to be readily available before bar owners could ease up.

Closer to home, the first signs of what the future might hold are already taking shape in Texas and Georgia, where governors have allowed restaurants (not bars) to reopen to the public—a move that's been criticized by many. Though Chicago hospitality vets like Lost Lake co-owner Shelby Allison desperately want to get back to business as usual, she says that bar owners will have to grapple with larger-than-life moral questions when the time comes.

"Seeing other states open in the face of that devastating nationwide reality is absolutely abhorrent, in my opinion," Allison says. "I'm definitely still trying to raise money for my staff through our newsletter and I hope to be able to generate some revenue to help Lost Lake float along, but every bit of science and data says that gathering is unsafe. In this case, rushing to have a fancy cocktail in a bar will literally kill people."

One of the few certainties we can count on is that Chicago bars will likely be some of the last local businesses to reopen when the Illinois "stay-at-home" order lifts—due, in part, to the way they're set up and how people use them. But even when they're given the go-ahead, Chicago bar owners will face the challenge of a lifetime in finding a new normal and operating on thinner margins than ever before.

Still, when the day does come, McElroy imagines bars will become more necessary than ever before—giving Chicagoans a place to reunite with loved ones over a drink.

"My hope is that as soon as we are allowed to, we will gather in bars once again—people will need places to come together, to reflect on this period, commiserate with friends and family, lament the bad days and bask in the good," McElroy says. "But to get back to that reality, there will have to be many steps taken by myself and other operators to make people feel safe and comfortable in our places."

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