Last year, Luis Centeno remembered, he thought a weeklong shutdown of his gym was a good thing if it meant saving lives and mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
“Everyone thought it was going to be just a one-or-three-week lockdown. Then it turned into a month. Then, almost a-year-and-a-half later, and we are just barely coming out of it,” said Centeno, founder of Fit Results.
On Friday, Chicago will end a year of restrictions on crowd size, indoor gatherings and the like caused by a global pandemic which has claimed millions of lives, including nearly 600,000 in the United States.
But reopening doesn’t mean an end of the pandemic or a complete return to normal. Artifacts of a pandemic world will remain, such as mask-wearing in certain settings, hand sanitizer pumps at business entrances or clear plastic guards in separating customers from store cashiers. But it will mean people can freely gather en masse.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said moving to unrestricted crowd size should be welcomed as a sign of the sacrifices made to keep people safe. It was time, she said, to rebuild and support the local economy.
“Our city cannot fully bounce back from the pandemic until the cultural, retail and financial engines that power our economy are able to return at full capacity,” Lightfoot said Thursday.
Closing streets to keep businesses open
The city is taking every opportunity to celebrate the reopening.
On Thursday, it announced the Central City Recovery Roadmap to help revitalize downtown businesses. That includes working with private groups to boost foot traffic with occasional closings of Michigan Avenue, LaSalle Street and State Street.
“Meet me on the Mile,” is intended to lure residents and tourists to shop, dine and check out “Instagrammable” installations along the Magnificent Mile. “Lunch on LaSalle” will create pop-up dining for downtown workers, residents and visitors on the street with the iconic view of the Board of Trade building.
The previously-announced “Sundays on State” will close that street to vehicles, from Madison to Lake streets, for live music and other performances every Sunday, starting July 11.
Also, the city is partnering with museums to stay open late on Friday.
Opportunity Insights’ Economic Tracker has monitored the impact of COVID-19 on local economies since the pandemic began. It reported that at the end of May, the number of small businesses open in Chicago dropped by 40% since January 2020.
For Centeno, “it’s about time” the city ends those restrictions, because he’s seen businesses around him collapse. He is ready to return to how his gym operated before the pandemic, with packed workout classes.
“We aren’t ever getting rid of hand sanitizer and we have this full airflow system we installed and will keep using,” Centeno said. And he will still require customers to wear masks in his facility, “but if they show us their card that they’re vaccinated, then they don’t have to wear a mask.”
Mask-wearing, Centeno said, shouldn’t be stigmatized, since it is customary in many other countries.
Get the parties started
Gabriel Dellatorre, owner of Grand Terrace Banquets, 6010 W. Grand Ave., has hosted only three events over the last year, with quinceaneras and weddings on hold. His venue has two rooms — one holds 300 people, the other 200 — but those three parties were limited to just 40 people each.
“We are packing our space to capacity if we can and we are ready to do it safely,” Dellatorre said. “I am booked every week for the rest of the year, with most if not all of the events originally scheduled for 2020.”
“We need this badly. We need to make money,” Dellatorre said.
Humboldt Park restaurant owner Zoraida Rivera-Tanon said the reopening couldn’t come at a better time.
“We are going full capacity but we will keep the requirements for wearing a mask when not eating or drinking,” said Rivera-Tanon, who owns La Bruquena. “I’m really excited about this because it feels like New Year’s Eve for me. I’m anxious to see how things look after Friday.”
At churches, stores some changes will linger
Churches also will adjust, with limits on crowd size removed and many practices returning to normal.
The Archdiocese of Chicago announced churches will ease most restrictions, welcoming full-capacity Mass without a mask mandate for vaccinated people.
Parishioners can also begin receiving Holy Communion on the tongue again but wine still will not be shared from a cup. Hand sanitizer will still be available and its use will be encouraged.
Grocery shopping will change, as well.
At Jewel, for instance, shoppers will see the return of hot bars, wing bars and bakery items sold in bulk. Also returning are seating areas for those food bars and Starbucks locations in stores will also reopen.
Those floor decals promoting social distancing and one-way aisles also will be going away.
A staple of pandemic life that will remain at Jewel and likely at other stores are the sneeze guards separating cashiers from customers.
Not in a rush
But not every Chicago establishment is rushing to a full reopening.
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center is in Hermosa, an area hard-hit by COVID-19 and one where at times, both infection rates and deaths led the city. The center promotes Latin American art but during the pandemic, it was used for COVID-19 testing and later as a vaccination site for the community.
“I can tell you, we are in no rush to fill our space,” said Omar Torres-Kortright, executive director of the center, 4046 W. Armitage Ave. “We appreciate the city giving us that option to do so but we want to make sure we are safe and putting the needs for the community first.”
Torres-Kortright said the center can hold over 230 people for theatrical shows, but this summer, he doesn’t expect more than 60 people will gather for any inside events. Their focus, he said, is providing a more intimate experience for indoor shows while putting together more outdoor shows and events.
“We have to work all this out still with our community to see what is best for everyone, so we aren’t rushing into anything,” Torres-Kortright said. “Maybe by the end of the summer, when we can no longer hold outdoor events and the pandemic is really behind us, we will revisit going back to normal.”