Oak Park eateries reopen dining rooms

Rise in COVID-19 elsewhere worries restaurants here

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By Melissa Elsmo

Food Writer

After COVID-19 shuttered dining rooms on March 16, a glimmer of hope arrived on June 26 as phase four of Governor J.B. Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan allowed indoor dining to reopen with capacity restrictions. A subsequent spike in cases nationwide has some Oak Park restaurant owners concerned the virus rate increase may result in a setback for an industry already heavily impacted by the pandemic.

"The biggest challenge now is keeping the restaurant open and having hours for my employees," said Johnny Beltran, manager of Lake Street Kitchen and Bar. "We can withstand a big punch, but multiple hits are hard to come back from. A step backward right now would be devastating."

Beltran wears many hats at his Lake Street Kitchen and Bar, 1101 Lake St. He serves as cook, server, and purchaser and now his primary focus is on coaxing his employees back to work as his restaurant navigates its way through a pandemic while welcoming guests indoors.

Lake Street Kitchen has instituted a one-hour maximum per table to encourage diners to move through the restaurant and makes sure his employees always follow strict sanitizing schedules and wear personal protective equipment. 

Most people, especially Oak Park residents, understand the regulations according to Beltran. Visitors from neighboring states have been less understanding. A Wisconsin visitor become upset about not being able to move tables closer together 

"People from other states don't seem to understand how seriously Illinois is taking this," said Beltran. "I am very concerned about rising cases. If one restaurant had to close because of COVID we would all feel threatened. For now, we are living day by day." 

Lea French Street Food, 106 N Marion St., closed for a week in March to assess their next steps, but owners Colleen and Nicolas Caulliez wanted to put their best foot forward as Illinois entered phase four. They have streamlined and improved their menu and have focused on breakfast and lunch service.

The Caulliez's wanted to give the impression of a large take-out zone in the restaurant and encourage customers to utilize the kiosk ordering system to minimize contract between staff and guests. Since entering phase four Lea has seen an increase in walk-in customers, but owners are not sure if people are comfortable dining inside just yet.

"It started with just a couple of people on the first day," said Colleen Caulliez. "Slowly people are becoming more comfortable and yesterday our indoor tables were almost all full."

"Perhaps there was some hesitation because people thought it would be complicated to dine in," said Nicolas Caulliez. 

Nicolas said phase four would likely be the new normal at least until there is a vaccine and both owners have concerns there may be a setback because of increasing cases.

"You can't plan anything in COVID," said Colleen Caulliez.

Shanon Williams, executive director of Downtown Oak Park, is optimistic now that Oak Park restaurants can welcome customers into their dining rooms. Though customers seem more comfortable eating outdoors for now, Williams senses people appreciate a return to normalcy despite a resurgence of the virus in some states.

"As an organization, we worry about a resurgence of the virus and the impact it could have on our restaurants," said Williams. "Businesses are taking this day by day not month by month. There is a fine balance between looking ahead and knowing things could suddenly change again."

According to Mike charley, Oak Park's public health director, the department has not received any complaints from residents regarding social distancing in restaurant dining rooms.  Most of the 25 COVID-19 related complaints received since April 6 have referenced employees, residents and/or customers failing to wear face coverings.

The Illinois Department of Health (IDPH) will closely monitor data from local health department  and regional healthcare councils  and will recommend moving back to the previous phase of Restore Illinois based on a "sustained rise in positivity rate, sustained  increase in hospital admissions for COVID-19 like illness, reduction in hospital capacity threatening surge capabilities and/or a significant outbreak in the region that threatens the health of the region."

"If the state determines that the state must move back to Phase Three, the village will be prepared to help/assist the business community and/or residents understand and interpret any updated state/local guidance," said Charley.

Email: melissa@oakparkeats.com

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