Chicago Riverwalk businesses prepare to reopen, await safety guidelines from city

At Island Party Hut, co-owner Steve Majerus is stocking up on leis and getting his tiki-style bar and grill on the Chicago Riverwalk ready for a summer season that he hopes will be better than 2020.

Last year at this time, “everyone was canceling their reservations,” Majerus said. But the phones are ringing again and requests are coming in from groups looking to host anniversary celebrations, bachelor parties, and other small gatherings.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Riverwalk’s opening last year and benched the pedestrians who frequent the stretch.

In 2020, vendors along the Riverwalk generated $7.6 million in revenue, down 54% from 2019, according to the city. Downtown office workers who once spent lunch hours on the path worked from home and international travelers never materialized. Neither did the local and suburban residents who visit on weekends.

“It was a tough year, for sure,” Majerus said. Sales at his bar and grill were down about 70% in 2020 compared with previous years.

But Majerus, who plans to open April 9, says he has his fingers crossed about the upcoming season. He’s not the only one.

Up and down the popular 1.25-mile path, vendors are cautiously optimistic that after months of being cooped up by winter weather and the pandemic, people will be eager to get out on the Riverwalk. All of the primary vendors will return this season, according to Michelle Woods, the city’s project manager for the Riverwalk.

The first businesses start opening in April, with others following as the weather starts to warm.

Many vendors expect sales to recover this year, although they say they probably won’t return to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Wendella, which operates tours, cruises, and the water taxi, anticipates business will slowly recover as COVID-19 vaccinations ramp up, but expects it will take a few years to return to the same level at which the company operated in 2019, said Andrew Sargis, chief of operations for the water taxi.

Business last year was down 80%, he said. Wendella began offering architecture tours earlier this month and will expand its schedule in April, but Sargis said the water taxi likely won’t restart until late summer.

Last year the Riverwalk followed the same COVID-19 safety guidelines set by the Chicago Park District, Woods said. Signage was posted about face coverings. Directional markings were placed on the pavement. And all guests sitting down for a meal or a drink had to have reservations and provide contact information in case contact tracing was necessary.

Woods said discussions are underway about what the requirements will be this year.

Vendors also took a number of steps on their own last year to protect visitors and their staffs, and many of those will remain in place.

At Tiny Tapp, a waterside café and bar, tables were placed 6 feet apart, masks were required any time guests were not seated, and sanitization efforts were stepped up, said Mark Johnson, one of the owners.

Tiny Tapp also got rid of paper menus and began having customers place orders by scanning menu QR codes with their phones.

“It certainly was not a normal summer, but we learned a lot,” Johnson said. “We’re going to double down on everything we did and hopefully do it even more efficiently.”

Business at Tiny Tapp was down 75% from a typical summer last year.

“That’s not insubstantial. But at the end of the day, that wasn’t our concern,” Johnson said. “Our concern was to make sure that everyone stayed safe.”

Tonya Gross, who operates Shop Small Chicago, has a kiosk in the Riverwalk’s Community Marketplace, a cluster of small vendors between Michigan and Wabash avenues that showcases minority- and women-owned businesses.

She was meticulous about cleaning last year. Plastic shields and contactless payment systems also helped.

“I was kind of like, ‘I am going to open this retail shop and do it safely and make a point that it can be done,’” said Gross, who has submitted a proposal to the city to operate the kiosk for a third season this summer.

Even though her sales were down 60 to 70% last year, Gross said she was encouraged by the support shown to the local brands she stocks.

“We need people to return to work to some extent, or to make the Riverwalk a planned destination,” Gross said. “What is consumer behavior going to look like? We don’t know how to predict that.”

One business that bucked the trends last year was Urban Kayaks, which had its best season in 10 years with sales up 50% from 2019, said owner and manager Aaron Gershenzon.

“Kayaking is an individual sport and you’re kind of by yourself out there. So it fit right into social distancing,” said Gershenzon, who offers tours, lessons, and rentals. “We were busier than ever because people were dying to get outside and on the water.”

“I feel a bit guilty saying that because all of our restaurant neighbors were struggling.”

Customers are already reserving spots in his youth kayaking classes and purchasing memberships that give them season-long access to boats.

But even Gershenzon acknowledges that pandemic safety and cleaning protocols add a layer of complexity. His team sprayed life jackets with disinfectant after every use last summer. The boats, which have always been cleaned between uses, also needed to be disinfected.

Customers were asked to social distance while on land, and masks could only come off once the kayaks were separated on the water.

“It was very labor intensive,” Gershenzon said. But he’s grateful he was able to open at all.

“It’s not lost on us how fortunate we were.”

Abdel Jimenez contributed.