Restaurants, theaters see benefits as 'Bridge Phase' starts
The launch of Illinois' "Bridge Phase" of reopening Friday didn't necessarily provide a major direct benefit to restaurants but rather the hope of a trickle-down effect from those businesses it may help more.
Case in point -- downtown Arlington Heights, where restaurants were able to raise their indoor capacity from 25% to 30%, but where an increase to 60% capacity will allow Metropolis Performing Arts Centre to gradually increase the audience at its temporary tented venue from 72 seats to 140 or more.
Restaurateurs in the area, including Salsa 17 owner Larry Huber, consider Metropolis the "crown jewel" of downtown Arlington Heights and a large driver of traffic -- especially when capacity is back to normal and it's again occupying its permanent theater space.
In the meantime, the downtown area continues to benefit from the Arlington Alfresco experience allowed by the village, Huber said. He attributed his sizable lunchtime crowd Friday more to the good weather than the start of the Bridge Phase.
"There was just an overwhelming response from residents and business owners and people who don't live in Arlington Heights," Huber said of the outdoor dining opportunity. "If they were to stop doing it post-pandemic, I don't know what the reason would be."
Derek Hanley, co-owner of Peggy Kinnane's Irish Restaurant & Pub, said the outdoor dining should help some people feel more comfortable if they're anxious about COVID-19 because he's ready to trust that those who come inside without a mask are fully vaccinated as the new CDC guidance allows for.
"We really can't police that," Hanley said. "If crowds bother you, you probably should stay at home."
Though the change in mask guidance Friday probably has more impact than the Bridge Phase, Hanley felt both were signs that a long battle is finally being won.
"We're glad it's finally here," he said. "It's been a tough year. It's time to get back to work and for people to start living their lives again. We're excited. We followed the rules for the past 16 months."
Peggy Klein of Arlington Heights said the weather was a bigger influence on her decision to go shopping in the downtown area Friday than was the Bridge Phase, but she thought she might even dine indoors at a restaurant within the next week for the first time since the pandemic began.
"We probably would have done this anyway," she said as she and a friend stepped into The Eiffel Flower shop with masks on, "but the fact that we're in this Bridge Phase makes me feel even safer."
Joe Keefe, executive artistic director of Metropolis, said the Bridge Phase was well timed for the recent opening of the centre's open-air venue a short distance away at Eastman Avenue and Evergreen Street. The two preplanned shows -- "My Way" and "Little Shop of Horrors" -- fortuitously adapt well to such a stage, he added.
The bond between the performing arts center and the restaurants immediately around it is so strong, he said, that he's regularly informed those neighbors of the size of upcoming audiences so that they'll know how to staff for the days of those performances.
While the tent location is perhaps providing a direct benefit for restaurants, Metropolis is anticipating a return to its theater space around Labor Day -- simultaneously planning for either 60% or 100% capacity at that time, Keefe said.
Other beneficiaries of the Bridge Phase include upcoming graduation ceremonies and the venues that will host them.
Ben Gibbs, general manager of the NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates, said that 51,000 tickets are now able to be issued for the 20 ceremonies booked there from May 20 to 29. The Bridge Phase allows each graduate to invite two more guests than was previously possible, he added.