FILE - outdoor dining, Illinois, restaurant, Virus Outbreak Illinois

A server, second from right, tends to customers in an outdoor dining area at a restaurant in Vernon Hills, Ill., Thursday, June 25, 2020. 

(The Center Square) – Even before COVID-19, extending the outdoor dining months with sidewalk and patio service in spring and fall was a trend in the restaurant industry.

With public health restrictions limiting inside seating because of COVID-19, extending the outside dining season this fall just makes sense.

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said his members are resilient. Restaurant owners will do whatever it takes to stay open, he said. Off-season, outdoor dining is something they are game to try because it has worked in other cold-weather cities around the world.

“We see it in Paris and in Toronto, and at Colorado ski resorts,” Toia said.

The ultimate outside dining experience may be a heated, clear plastic bubble tent with a table for six inside.

Imagine a light snow falling as you and your friends drink hot toddies and eat steaks grilled on a nearby open fire. Even with a $200 advance reservation fee, Evanston eatery Next of Kinship had waiting lists for its outdoor “igloo” tables last year. $175 of the $200 fee at Next of Kin goes toward the purchase of food.

Toia said patrons do not need bubble tents to stay comfortable outdoors. Restaurants use heat lamps, fireplaces, windbreaks, cushy furniture and plenty of blankets to make sure that guests stay warm. Mood lighting, hot cocktails, fresh air and firelight add up to more than just dinner – it's a dining experience under the stars.

These are tough times for Illinois restaurants, Toia emphasizes. With mandatory social distancing, restaurants are only allowed to accommodate about 50 percent of customer capacity indoors.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has held firm at a 25 percent capacity ceiling for indoor dining until the number of new COVID-19 cases drop down farther. Extending outside table season is one more thing that Illinois restaurants are trying to keep their businesses going through the pandemic.