More businesses and public places in Illinois opened Friday as the state moved into its next phase of reopening since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Under phase four, movie theatres, zoos, museums, bowling alleys and some other establishments were able to open their doors to patrons for the first time since March. Restaurants and bars could also start offering indoor dining, too.
“A lot of our customers have been asking for a long time, ‘When are you going to open?’ and finally we have a date and time,” said Dale Strom, general manager at Bel-Air Bowl in Belleville. “It’s good to be back and start to get a bit of normalcy in here.”
Staying closed for so long was tough, especially when the shutdown was initially planned for only two weeks, Strom said. He admits everything is not the same as it was before the pandemic closed down the state.
Not all lanes open
On Friday, the alley had empty lanes, an effort to keep bowlers at least six feet apart. Strom and his staff also sanitize the bowling balls and shoes before and after they’re used by different customers. Strom said he has even started cleaning the outside surfaces of shoes, something he didn’t have to do before.
The biggest change from before the pandemic is new occupancy limits for the building. The state restricts indoor capacities to 50 people or 50% of a building’s occupancy, whichever is smaller.
“The capacity limits are a little bit rough — it’s not a one-size-fits-all industry,” Strom said. “You’ve got some smaller centers that only have six or eight lanes that can fit 40-50 people. Then you’ve got our center that has 32 lanes.”
The limits are manageable for now, but he hopes they ease closer to fall when bowling leagues pick back up, he said.
“To limit us to 50 people in the building is really going to be difficult to run league programs, which are the core of our business,” Strom said.
Even with some restrictions, customers are happy to be back at the bowling alley. Belleville resident Deborah Foeller came to Bel-Air with her grandsons within the first hour after it reopened.
“It’s refreshing very much to get out and do something as a family because everybody has been home,” she said. “Now we can feel a little bit freer to get out and enjoy one another.”
Other patrons at the alley are relieved the restrictions on businesses are easing in Illinois.
“We’re glad to be able to go inside now, to restaurants and stuff,” said Belleville resident Mark Hines. “We’ve been going to Missouri to do all that.”
He sat with his wife and watched as his son finished a game, scoring more than 100 points. Hines said he’s ready for more parts of the region to return to how they were pre-pandemic.
“I’m tired of waiting,” he said. “I want to go to Cardinal games, Blues games.”
Changes for restaurants and bars
Restrictions for restaurants and bars in Illinois also changed on Friday. They can now offer indoor dining on top of outdoor, which the state started to allow last month. Under Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s original reopening plan restaurants and bars would have only been allowed to offer take-out until now.
“[Our customers are] very happy that we opened the outside, because they were missing what we had to offer here in the community,” said Anthony Bond, owner of Jazzy 159, a bar and lounge in Fairview Heights.
Serving guests outside wasn’t something Bond initially designed his business for, but it’s been a way for him to think creatively about serving his customers, he said.
“We’ve been able to give the same quality of service and experience outside that we do inside,” Bond said. “Our music, our bands haven’t lessened.”
The chance to open outdoor dining space last month was beneficial for other restaurants in the region.
“The overwhelming thing I heard was allowing the outdoor dining was a savior for many of us,” said Derek Reiser, owner of the Old Herald Brewery in Collinsville. “It just gave us a month of actually having revenue and guests on site and getting back into normalcy.”
In that time, the restaurant could establish new routines and build good sanitation habits, he said. Reiser explained the restaurant’s online reservation system he implemented for outdoor dining is helping manage costs and keep potential COVID-19 exposure to employees down.
“It helps us gauge what the day is going to be like and manage our staff expectations and minimize the number of folks that we have as employees in the building as well,” he said.
Now that Bond can open his indoor space, he said he’s focused on keeping his business sanitized and safe for his employees.
“We’re holding all our customers and patrons to that same standard,” he said. “No mask, no entrance. It’s pretty simple.”
His customers have been receptive to those regulations, even offering up some suggestions for how the business can reopen safely, Bond said.
“We’ve got a lot of clients who work in the medical field, different industries, and they donated supplies of that nature to help us, to make sure that we’re good to go,” he said.
Illinois waited much longer than other states in the country to fully reopen businesses. Bond said that was the right move.
“In the case of Illinois, big kudos and shout-outs to Gov. Pritzker,” he said. “He was adamant about staying the course and not opening up too early.”
Now with coronavirus cases spiking in places like Texas and Florida, Bond is happy to have waited an extra few weeks for Jazzy 159 to fully reopen to the public.
“No number could outweigh the safety that needs to be intact,” he said. “I was really happy that pressure as a business owner wasn’t set on me to decide, ‘Do I open, or do I not open?’”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid
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