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7 MIN READ - As officials announce new rules on public gatherings and business shut-downs in an effort to curb the transmission of COVID-19, the Chicago Loop is feeling the impact. Chicago Loop Alliance is monitoring information like pedestrian traffic, closures, and cancellations in an effort to act as a resource during this time. For a list of Loop impacts, visit LoopChicago.com/Advisories.
Chicago Loop Alliance’s pedestrian counters, by the U.K.-based company Springboard, track pedestrian activity in certain parts of the Loop. Eighteen counters are located on the east and west sides of State Street from Wacker to Ida B. Wells Drives. Additional counters are at Michigan and Wacker, Michigan and Washington, and in the Pedway. Based on this data, footfall declined by 63 percent on Tuesday, March 17, compared to the previous Tuesday, March 10. Footfall declined by 42 percent on Saturday, March 14, compared to Saturday, March 16, 2019, showing the impact of Coronavirus on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, one of the busiest weekends of the year for the Loop.
“It is no surprise that pedestrian activity in the Loop is declining as Chicagoans heed officials’ calls for social distancing, and we expect this activity will decline even further this week with the shutdown of bars, restaurants, and major retailers, as well as Chicago Public Schools,” said Michael Edwards, President and CEO of Chicago Loop Alliance. “We think it’s important to connect data to these assumptions, and we will continue to monitor pedestrian counts and act as a resource.”
As pedestrian activity in the Loop declines, members of Chicago Loop Alliance’s Street Team and Clean Team, contracted through the company Streetplus, are shifting their focus from customer service to thoroughly cleaning all street furniture, street fixtures, and equipment on State Street. All ambassadors have been equipped with rags and disinfectant to wipe down newspaper racks, trash cans, benches, and other fixtures in the public domain.
A statement from Streetplus reads, “Please take comfort in knowing that Streetplus is committed to the health, safety, and well-being of all our customers and the districts that we serve. We will do all that we can to help battle the transmission of COVID-19.”
According to data in Chicago Loop Alliance’s State of the Loop: 2018 Economic Profile, the Loop economy has a major impact on Chicago as a whole, and even the state of Illinois. The Loop accounts for about 28 percent of Chicago’s private-sector jobs, and is home to about 370,000 private- and public-sector workers. This is compared to approximately 21,000 Loop residents, meaning when Loop employees work from home or face cuts to their hours, traffic to Loop businesses takes a sharp drop.
“The Loop is a major part of the city’s Central Business District and relies heavily on international and domestic business and tourism,” Edwards said. “It’s not often you hear that the Loop is suffering the brunt of a bad situation, but in this case, the area with a relatively low residential population and a very high worker population is really going to suffer.”
Although restaurants city-wide were shut down to dine-in customers as of closing on March 16, Lauren Hammond, Communications Director for LM Restaurant Group, a Chicago Loop Alliance member, said business at all of their restaurants had slowed considerably last week.
“When conferences started cancelling and hotel occupancy began dropping, and with people working from home or working less altogether, we really felt it at Grant Park Bistro and Land & Lake Kitchen,” she said. “This is an extremely difficult time for the hospitality industry, not just in Chicago but across the U.S. For an industry that already operates with the narrowest of margins and employs some of the most vulnerable members of our society, the effects of these closures are devastating. Relief is needed if people want to see restaurants re-open in the future.”
“This is a devastating time for our entire community, but we are sticking together, and I know we'll get through this,” said Clodagh Lawless, co-owner of The Dearborn, a Chicago Loop Alliance member. “Food, of course, is our common thread, and on Monday we brought our Dearborn family together at the restaurant so that everyone could ‘shop’ and bring home groceries for their families. It was a bittersweet but powerful moment. Our employees are our family. Our guests are our family. And family is our everything. We hope everyone remains safe and healthy, and we look forward to welcoming everyone back to The Dearborn with the warmest Irish hospitality in the coming weeks.”
While restaurants are still allowed to sell food for take-out and delivery service, Teresa Ging, founder and owner of Chicago Loop Alliance member businesses Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique and Sugar Bliss Patisserie, said business is still sharply down due to fewer customers in the Loop.
“I agree with the other restauranteurs that the hospitality industry will suffer in the near and long term,” Ging said. “Unfortunately, the government—from federal, to state, to local—has no clear plan to help small businesses and hourly workers. We temporarily have closed one store, and most of my employees have filed unemployment, but their wages are much higher than what they will receive from unemployment. One of my stores at 115 N. Wabash is still open, and we saw 50 percent less sales than last year during St. Patrick’s week. No one is helping the small businesses except the owners themselves.”
Closures and cancellations due to COVID-19 have hit the hospitality and tourism industry particularly hard, and the economy will continue to feel a ripple effect. Domestic overnight visitors to Chicago spend an average of $1,100 during their trips, and international overnight visitors spend an average of $3,100. Chicago saw 57.7 million travelers in 2018.
The arts and culture sector in the Loop is also facing challenges, with performances by organizations like Broadway In Chicago, Goodman Theatre, Auditorium Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Lyric Opera postponed or canceled altogether. According to Chicago Loop Alliance’s Arts in the Loop Economic Impact Study, Loop arts and culture account for an annual economic impact of $2.5 billion. More paid admission visits are made to the arts institutions in the Loop each year (7.3 million) than to all of Chicago’s professional sports teams combined (6.7 million).
"This is deeply impacting arts and culture organizations around the Loop and all across the city,” said Judie Green, Chief Development Officer for the Auditorium Theatre and Immediate Past Chair of the Chicago Loop Alliance Board of Directors. “At the Auditorium Theatre, we have postponed all of our upcoming events for the next few weeks, including the annual visit from American Ballet Theatre, one of the biggest shows of our season. We will be looking to our supporters during this difficult time to help ensure our future."
"It is more important now than ever to be vigilant and follow the advice of health officials to protect our Company artists, students, instructors, and the entire administrative team," said Greg Cameron, President and CEO of The Joffrey Ballet and Commissioner for Special Service Area #1-2015. "Like everyone else, we are feeling the impact of this disruption, but safety should be everyone's priority right now. The good news is that we have an opportunity to work together to make sure that all organizations—in the Loop and elsewhere—come out stronger and safer than we were before. We look forward to celebrating our eventual return with a massive dance party on State Street later this summer."
And with around 41,000 students enrolled in higher education institutions in the Loop, impacts will be felt by schools moving in-person courses online.
“DePaul University and the other universities with Loop campuses have made decisions to discontinue in-person classes, and close or restrict access to student residence halls,” said Julie Emms, Director of Community Relations for DePaul University and a Chicago Loop Alliance Board Member. “In addition, most faculty and staff will be working from home. All of these actions will dramatically reduce the number of university and college students, staff, and faculty on our sidewalks and public places. Specifically, in DePaul’s case, due to our academic schedule, foot traffic would have been reduced in any case over the next two weeks due to finals and spring break schedules.”
Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, Chicago Loop Alliance is confident the Loop will recover from this rapid downturn and is supportive of measures enacted to keep Chicagoans and visitors to the city safe. In the meantime, the membership organization is working to make connections between businesses to share resources on weathering the storm.
“The priority right now has to be public safety,” Edwards said. “But our hearts are with Loop businesses that are facing what seems to be an impossible challenge. We will continue to act as a resource during this time, and we are looking forward to the day when we can lend our help in getting the Loop back to normal. We tend to think ‘normal’ in the Loop is a really beautiful thing.”
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