'A godsend': Wheaton's Hale Street to stay closed for summer of outdoor dining to help restaurants
Dick O'Gorman greeted the alfresco dining tents outside his downtown Wheaton restaurant last month as a "godsend."
The Ivy owner is now hiring again and filling reservations for outdoor dining in the middle of Hale Street. If you want a spot on the weekend, he advises patrons not to wait past Tuesday to book a table.
"We're looking for servers because business is definitely picking up," O'Gorman said Wednesday.
The city will keep the street closed for the entire summer to help restaurants reeling from shutdowns meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Downtown Wheaton Association turned the stretch of pavement on Hale from Front to Wesley streets into an alfresco setting with white tents, festoon lighting and tables spaced 6 feet apart.
Outdoor dining has made the area -- a vibrant restaurant scene before the pandemic -- begin to feel like a destination again, drawing customers from neighboring towns and interest from municipal leaders looking to re-create the setup in their towns.
"The community has been a huge support system in getting this accomplished," said Elle Withall, executive director of the business group.
All four regions of the state remain on track to proceed to Phase 4 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's reopening plan. In that stage, restaurants would reopen with indoor capacity limits.
Even then, restaurants anticipate diminished capacities and will need outdoor dining to support their business, Withall said.
"It's important that everybody works together because everybody benefits from the tent," Withall said.
Retailers also have benefitted from the infusion of foot traffic, the owners of Wesley Street florist Andrew's Garden said.
"The tent is bringing a huge benefit to our downtown beyond the restaurants," Tonya Parravano said via email. "It has created a sense of community and interest in our downtown that seems to be attracting visitors from all over the area. It gives us the opportunity to show off our beautiful new streetscape and use one of our festival streets exactly as we had imagined."
On the same section of Hale, the city last summer reconfigured parking, planted trees and installed wider sidewalks as part of an ongoing streetscape project.
"Hale Street was really made to be more of a festival street," Withall said.
O'Gorman hopes the city will bring back outdoor dining on Hale from May to October every year, pandemic or not.
"The tents, it's a huge savior for the restaurants," he said.