Here’s to ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for Chicago hotels and restaurants socked by COVID-19 restrictions

It’s no surprise the state’s latest jobs figures show the leisure and hospitality industry took quite a wallop last year, given the clamp that COVID-19 restrictions and quarantines put on the entire economy.

Still, the raw numbers released this month by the Illinois Department of Employment Security are nonetheless sobering: The number of jobs in the industry statewide plummeted from 628,000 in January 2020 to 412,000 now.

The plunge took 216,000 jobs with it. No other employment sector in the state suffered as much.

But we’re hoping three developments this month can provide a lifeline to the struggling industry: federal aid to restaurants and bars as part of the latest $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package; Illinois’ expansion of COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to include food and beverage workers; and Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy, beginning next month, as more people are vaccinated.

“Our industry has been decimated,” Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia told us. “But we’re starting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel.”

Needed help for beleaguered industry

There has been a year’s worth of second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking over the city and state shut-downs in the wake of the pandemic. Admittedly, it was tough to see the economy grind to a halt knowing it would likely cost jobs, but it was done with the noble intent to save lives.

And a restaurant and hotel town like Chicago was bound to feel that pinch more acutely. The Chicago food service industry alone lost 124,000 jobs between March and December, 2020, according to the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Toia says 5,000 of those jobs may never return.

This is why help targeted toward the industry is so important. The federal relief package sets aside $28.6 billion in grants to help struggling bars and restaurants stay afloat.

Handed out through the U.S. Small Business Administration, qualified establishments can get a maximum of $5 million per location. Businesses with multiple locations are capped at $10 million total.

We’d want to see the funds distributed equitably, making sure restaurants in working-class neighborhoods — not just the trendy, tourist-rich areas — get their fair share.

And there’s more good news, as food and beverage employees will be added to this list of essential workers eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, effective March 29. We believe the city and state would do well to set up dedicated sites for the employees to receive the shot.

“Chicago’s 7,300 restaurants are absolutely essential to our city’s economic survival,” Chicago Restaurants Coalition coordinator Roger Romanelli said last week as his group advocated its workers to be vaccinated. “It’s critical to look at restaurants as integral to our daily lives.”

Pritzker’s reopening plan next month could provide another assist to the industry, allowing establishments to increase indoor customer capacity from 25% to 30% while outdoor seating would be increased to 50%.

Patrons still have to remain 6 feet apart, and for now, groups larger than 10 would be prohibited — which will make it tough for establishment to host large events such as quinceaneras, cotillions, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.

Good news on a long road

Although the picture is improving, the short-term outlook is not completely rosy. Chicago’s hotels remain in peril, offering bottom-basement rates, while others, such as the Palmer House, and the Mag Mile’s Holiday Inn Express, are in foreclosure court.

But given how bad things were just a few months ago, we welcome the apparent progress that’s now happening.

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