Gina Capitanini ©Italian Village

US restaurant closures could accelerate as winter sets in

Unless another round of federal aid to small businesses is approved soon, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s order to shut down indoor dining statewide starting Nov. 4 could wipe out thousands of Illinois restaurants, industry officials say.

The original ban on indoor dining was lifted in stages over the summer, but a late autumn wave of coronavirus infections led Pritzker to reimpose a shutdown, and restaurants now face a long winter with few customers or prospects.

“We’re not really making it,” Italian Village proprietor Gina Capitanini said. “Every day is a loss and every month is a loss.”

Capitanini represents the third generation of her family to run Italian Village, founded by her grandfather, Alfredo Capitanini, in 1927. The city’s oldest Italian restaurant, it is actually three restaurants under one roof at 71 West Monroe St. in the Loop. It became known for hosting opera singers, politicians and visiting celebrities, as well as its re-creation of the Tuscan night sky in the upstairs space.

Italian Village employed as many as 130 people just before the crisis. But after seven months of the coronavirus, it is now down to about 24 employees, and the near future seems threatening, Capitanini said. It still serves customers through carryout and delivery, but losses now run about $150K per month, and the family is financing operations with its own money.

“We never thought seven months into this we’d be in the same place,” she said.

But Capitanini isn’t ready to quit.

“I guess I haven’t gotten to that point,” she said. “I must be crazy because every other restaurant in the Loop is closed, but we’ve been in business for 93 years, plus I have employees who have been with us for 40 years, and they’re loyal to me, so I’m loyal to them, even if it means I’m losing my ass.”

Chicagoland’s restaurant landscape could look very different by springtime, Illinois Restaurant Association CEO Sam Toia said. Eateries facing permanent closure range from startups with just a few tables to established landmarks. His organization is asking the U.S. Congress to pass the RESTAURANTS Act of 2020, which would funnel $120B in grants to food service operators crushed by the pandemic. But the legislation is stalled, and without federal help or modifications to the state’s indoor dining ban, the situation is bleak.

“We’re in the Midwest, and the weather is getting brutal, so outdoor dining is not going to cut it,” Toia said.

Morton’s The Steakhouse on Tuesday closed its original location at 1050 North State St., where it had operated since 1978, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, and COVID-19 restrictions are likely to shutter other well-known restaurants. According to the National Restaurant Association, 66% of Illinois restaurant proprietors surveyed said under current conditions, they won’t make it through the next six months.

Illinois restaurants employed 594,000 people at the beginning of this year, according to Toia. By April, 321,000 were unemployed. At the end of September, the loosening of restrictions improved the situation, but 140,000 were still out of work.

Pritzker and his top public health officials say the move to ban indoor dining, along with the closure of casinos, theaters and museums, is necessary to stem a deadly tide of infections, now occurring at an even faster pace than last spring, when a more comprehensive lockdown was ordered…

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