WBEZ is chronicling Illinois’ road to recovery, bringing you stories about how people and places are coming back from COVID-19.
It’s been nine weeks since Capri Ristorante in southwest suburban Burr Ridge shut its doors to customers near the start of the pandemic in the Chicago region. It’s been tough on the owner, Gigi Rovito, and his staff.
“Waking up every day, going to work and seeing your customers and your employees, it’s family. You become family,” Rovito said. “It’s something you live and breathe every day. And when it gets taken away from you, it’s sad.”
But Friday, Rovito, who has been in business for 17 years, was ready to welcome his first customers outside now that safety measures were in place.
“They are going to be wearing masks. They are going to be wearing gloves. We’re going to have sanitizer everywhere,” Rovito said. “There’s going to be six feet apart every table.”
Restaurants like his across Illinois welcomed back customers as the state lifted its stay-at-home order Friday.
In west suburban Forest Park, restaurants and shops up and down the strip of Madison Street shed their takeout-only restrictions to open back up. Although people had to wear a mask to enter restaurants, they were off by the time folks sat down to eat.
Not a single person interviewed said the experience felt normal. At O’Sullivan’s Public House, there’s a physical reminder of that abnormality. The name Reggie, a regular customer, is carved into the bar along with the date he died from COVID-19.
Bartender Sally Sullivan said she can’t help but think he’d be there today, playing jazz music and ordering his usual.
Outside another regular, Erika Ivanovich, sat on the patio alone, raising her glass to Reggie. She said while she’s happy to enjoy a martini for the first time in months, the experience, like the drink, is bittersweet.
“We’re scared,” she said. “I think this is too early. I’m sitting out here by myself, but if there were people sitting here, it would be too close and I would be scared.”
Chicago has delayed reopening, albeit by just a few days. Restaurants will continue to do just takeout or delivery only until next Wednesday. That’s why Chicagoan Jennifer Hondzinski and her partner drove west for a Bloody Mary in the sun.
“Life has to go on, and we have to contribute to the economy and society,” Hondzinski said. “I think this is a great way to start that.”
Next week, offices in downtown Chicago will also open up to more workers like Violet Mendiola Costillo. A legal assistant for a downtown law firm, Costillo said she’s been told there are protections in place like social distancing requirements, especially when using the elevator. Her law firm is on the 40th floor, so Costillo said she’s expecting as much as an hour wait to get into her actual office.
But she’s still worried about bringing COVID-19 into her workplace from her home in Northwest Indiana.
“My major concern is not so much contracting the virus, it’s spreading it because my husband and my son who live with me. They are essential workers, so they’re exposed,” Costillo said. “My son works at Ford. On his shift, there’s 1,500 employees.”
When the city shut down and office buildings closed, people like Celedonio, whose job is to clean those offices, took a financial hit. He asked that his last name not be used for fear he could get fired. He’s being called back but without many protections in place. Celedonio said he’s frightened, but he doesn’t have a choice.
“Yes, I’m scared, but you have to work. You have to eat,” Celedonio said in Spanish.
As these businesses that were first deemed “nonessential” are reopening, the people considered essential workers from the start may actually be at greater risk.
Tim Bell is the head of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, which deals with thousands of temporary workers at factories all over the region — many of whom don’t have health insurance. Bell said he’s worried about the influx of thousands of people.
“As the economy reopens, the workers who have been working at these factories, they are going to be interacting with everybody else who has been staying at home,” Bell said.
Michael Puente covers Chicago’s Southeast side, the south suburbs and Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow them on Twitter @MikePuenteNews @MariahWoelfel.