Editorial: Alfresco dining may be here to stay - if COVID safety is on the menu

  • Outdoor dining scenes like this one in Arlington Heights have become common for lunch and dinner at restaurants throughout the suburbs during the pandemic.

    Outdoor dining scenes like this one in Arlington Heights have become common for lunch and dinner at restaurants throughout the suburbs during the pandemic. Daily Herald File Photo

 
Posted2/16/2021 1:00 AM

There haven't been many positives to come from the COVID-19 crisis that has gripped the nation for the past year. But one thing that seems to be a hit is the suburbs' renewed interest in alfresco dining.

Outdoor tables were a lifeline last summer when restaurants were searching for any options that would allow them to open their doors and resuscitate business by attracting diners who were holed up in their homes and at best, ordering takeout. Alfresco, Italian for "in the fresh air," isn't new, but the idea of setting up tables and chairs on sidewalks and in less scenic parking lots found enthusiastic support.

 

Municipalities embraced the idea. Many blocked off downtown streets as a way to make it happen for eateries without patios. Some towns offered music and decorative lighting, and contributed pub and picnic tables.

Actions like these injected some life and cash into large downtowns in Arlington Heights, St. Charles, and Batavia, and smaller ones like Cary, among the long list of suburban locales that gave pandemic-weary people a reason to venture outdoors and enjoy a meal and a beverage or two. Using propane patio heaters, tents and igloos, many areas extended the option into winter.

This alfresco rebirth was such a hit that many towns are making plans to re-up for warmer weather, and provide the same outlet for restaurants and diners amid continued uncertainty over how COVID-19 will play out in 2021.

Vaccinations and declining case counts provide optimism, but experts predict the pandemic won't go quietly, so it will be critical for communities and restaurants to continue following and enforcing health precautions -- including masks, social distancing, capacity limits -- to keep diners and staff safe. As it was last summer, safety must still be top of mind in the months ahead. But if it is, good things can happen -- and diners might even find they have additional options when going out to eat.

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Among the communities making plans are Palatine, where the village council agreed to again allow outdoor dining after officials received early inquiries from restaurants and bars. Mundelein officials also cited last year's success and renewed requests from residents and business owners in approving plans to again close a block of Park Street at the heart of the downtown area for outdoor restaurant dining.

"It turned out to be a huge hit over the summer," Mayor Steve Lentz said. "If there is any silver lining to the COVID crisis, then this is it."

Arlington Heights and Wheaton plan to again allow alfresco dining. Geneva and Batavia are among others leaning in that direction.

Many restaurants and diners will cheer the return of suburban alfresco but real success hinges on doing it with the health and safety of patrons and employees as the top concern.

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