Wheaton stretching outdoor dining through year's end, with heated tents
As the calendar flips to October and hints at a chill in the air, downtown Wheaton restaurants will stretch their outdoor dining season into the cold weather months.
Restaurants will rely on heated tents in hopes that customers will shrug off gray skies and cozy up to al fresco dining through the end of the year, no matter what the temperature.
The new tent heating system is the latest adaptation devised by the Downtown Wheaton Association and the city to help businesses struggling from shutdowns and indoor capacity limits meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
"An extension of the tent gives them the ability that they need to stay in business," Association Executive Director Elle Withall said.
Outdoor dining spilled into the middle of Hale Street in May. But it's a hardly a makeshift setup. White tents, festoon lighting, live music and tables spaced 6 feet apart have allowed restaurants to add seating while a 25% limit on indoor capacity remains in place.
"The tents have been so well-received," Councilman John Rutledge said. "It's kind of a special thing we've got going. I'd like to see them run as long as possible."
The city plans to keep a section of Hale Street closed to enable restaurants to continue serving customers who may be dubious of gathering indoors in the pandemic.
"This is an investment that we're making, and I think we should continue it through the end of the year," Mayor Phil Suess said.
DuPage County has allocated federal relief funds to the city based on a per capita basis for reimbursement of coronavirus emergency expenses under the CARES Act. The city is so far requesting reimbursement for $88,796 in tent-related costs as part of two submissions to the county of expenses incurred between March through August.
Within the next two weeks, contractors expect to install 6-foot-tall heater units fueled by diesel instead of more combustible propane or natural gas.
The units will sit outside the tents, with ducts running the length of the outdoor structures to evenly distribute heat, said Dave Cesar, president of Batavia-based Blue Peak Tents.
More than half a dozen tents will stay up downtown into the fall. The Hale Street tents are anchored to large concrete ballasts.
"We're trying to keep as many openings as possible and then just overheat it to offset those openings," Cesar said.
Restaurant owners have hailed the tents as a "godsend." Downtown businesses are looking to extend that energy and stimulate foot traffic through the rest of 2020 with plans for holiday lighting around the shopping district and in Adams Park.
"We're really looking forward to see what we can do to turn downtown Wheaton into a winter wonderland," Withall said.