Maskless crowds flocked to Brookfield Zoo on June 14, three days after the start of Phase 5 of Reopen Illinois. Visitors no longer have to register in advance for tickets and most indoor exhibits and some restaurants have reopened to the public. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Martin Lynch says March 17, 2020 was one of the saddest days of his life. Instead of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a bar full of customers, the owner of Irish Times Pub and Restaurant in downtown Brookfield watched as his tap lines were drained for what looked to be a good long time.

The COVID-19 shutdown had hit home.

“We emptied all the lines on what should have been the busiest day of the year and we didn’t know when we were coming back,” said Lynch.

While Irish Times and other bars and restaurants were later able to open their doors to varying degrees in the ensuing months, “comeback day” officially arrived June 11, when the state entered Phase 5 of the governor’s Reopen Illinois plan.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be back in action at last,” Lynch said in an interview last week. “It’s been 15 months of uncertainty and we finally have certainty about moving forward.”

What perhaps made the occasion real was the reappearance of barstools at the Irish Times bar, which had been removed to ensure social distancing.

“The staff are really happy and the people have been very generous and appreciative of how their lives have been affected last year,” Lynch said.

One other aspect of the business that’s returned after a year’s absence is events. So many milestones went unmarked, that Lynch said people are making up for that lost time. He’s hired a new events manager, who’s been kept very busy.

“There’s a huge demand for events, and we’re fortunate to see that coming back,” said Lynch. “We’re all geared up for that now.”

C.C. Hargrove (left) talks with Nick DePalma while having a drink at the bar on June 14 at Irish Times in Brookfield. The barstools returned June 11 for the first time since March 16, 2020, the day before the governor shut down all bars and restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

Brookfield, North Riverside to end states of emergency

The Brookfield Village Board on June 14 extended its COVID-19 state of emergency, but President Michael Garvey and other trustees made it clear that would be the final extension of the order.

When the matter comes up for a vote again on June 28, the emergency order will end. 

But with the village planning to close down Grand Boulevard for outdoor dining and a live entertainment June 25-27 as part of the COVID-19 emergency powers, officials want to make sure that goes ahead as planned. Garvey said he may issue other executive orders to continue the monthly summer outdoor dining street closure in the future.

The village of North Riverside’s emergency declaration will stay in place at least until the village’s board of trustees meets again on June 21. Mayor Joseph Mengoni indicated in a text message that the declaration is likely to get lifted, telling the Landmark, “We are working through the lawyers for the proper way of rescinding the order.”

While the village of Riverside never declared an official state of emergency, the village president and trustees did exercise certain powers during the pandemic, including expanding outdoor dining for restaurants in the public right of way.

Village President Joseph Ballerine, meanwhile, announced that the Friends of the Fourth will host Riverside’s annual Concert in the Park, held the night before the Independence Day parade. It will take place this year on July 2 from 6 to 10 p.m. in Guthrie Park.

The event, which usually draws hundreds, many of whom begin staking territorial claims in the park early that day, will feature a pair of bands, food courtesy of local restaurants and a beer truck.

Anyone under 12 or not vaccinated will be asked to wear a face covering at the event.

In addition, Riverside Recreation Director Ron Malchiodi confirmed that with Illinois moving to Phase 5, the parade on July 3 will follow its traditional route, starting at Delaplaine and Longcommon roads and heading south across the tracks to the Riverside Township Hall.

Zoo ends timed ticketing

 You might not have known it by the foot traffic at Brookfield Zoo, but June 11 marked the park’s first “normal” weekend in more than a year. After enduring complete shutdown last spring for three months and a self-imposed two-month hiatus to open 2021, Brookfield Zoo welcomed back visitors last Friday without requiring them to first reserve a time.

According to Sondra Katzen, the zoo’s director of public relations, nearly 22,000 people visited Brookfield Zoo on June 11 and June 12, a number that was actually a bit lower than what the zoo had been seeing with the timed ticketing in place, though temperatures around 90 with high humidity and then a soaking thunderstorm on Saturday didn’t help. 

Hand-sanitizing stations and non-functional water fountains were other reminders that the pandemic hasn’t completely disappeared, but some restaurants and many of the zoo’s indoor exhibits are once again open to visitors, though face coverings are still required indoors.

Movie audiences building

Also for the first time in more than a year, the movie theaters at the North Riverside Park Mall are again operating at full capacity, though patrons haven’t rushed back into the seats since the North Riverside Luxury 6 reopened with restrictions on April 15.

“We were at 10 percent capacity when we reopened, but it keeps building,” said Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas, which operates the mall’s movie theaters. “You can’t expect everyone to run out instantly.”

The movies being released to theaters from the production studios had been targeted to young males, Johnson said, since they were determined to be the most adventurous when it came to visiting places like movie theaters when pandemic restrictions were in place.

But that began to change last week, with the release of the musical “In the Heights” and the animated film “Peter Rabbit 2,” which appeal to wider audiences.

“’In the Heights’ is certainly bringing in a new demographic,” said Johnson, who said that, overall, business is about half of what the theaters did in 2019. “And the velocity of new releases is increasing, and that’s everything to us.”

Asked if the theater’s debut of “In the Heights” had been timed to coincide with Illinois’ reopening date, Johnson said it was just the luck of the draw.

“I’ve had about 100 different plans during the past year, and they’ve all gone south,” Johnson said. “With ‘In the Heights,’ it’s just dumb luck.”

Masks begin their slow fade

One of the more visually jarring aspects of the reopening began seeping into daily life in early June when the CDC updated its guidelines on wearing face coverings. Fully vaccinated people, according to the CDC, generally are free to go maskless though individual institutions and businesses can impose their own rules.

Employees and many customers at Binny’s Beverage Depot were without masks on June 11 for the first time since the business was allowed to reopen last summer. A sign posted on the front door stated that vaccinated customers were free to forego wearing masks.

Mask-optional day came for employees at Riverside Foods on June 11 as well, although customers have had the option for a bit longer, said co-owner Peter Boutsikakis.

“We’re not enforcing masks for anyone who’s vaccinated,” Boutsikakis said, adding that some people still opt to do so as a nod to employees.

If you’re visiting the Riverside and North Riverside public libraries, however, you’re still required to wear a face covering while inside, according to the directors of those institutions. 

In a message announcing the start of Phase 5, the Riverside Public Library issued this statement: “It is the position of the board of trustees that since the library serves children under 12 and other vulnerable populations, and these patrons are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, mask usage will be required in the Riverside Public Library until further notice.”

The ongoing renovation of the Riverside Public Library’s lower level still has that portion of the building closed, but June 11 meant the return of study carrels and tables, along with limited seating. 

Computer time limits expanded to two hours per session and the library again has hard copies of newspapers and magazines back for in-house browsing.

The lower level of the North Riverside Public Library, which houses youth services, remains closed as a couple of renovation projects wrap up, said Director Natalie Starosta, but the library reopened for browsing without appointments on June 2. Seating remains limited to encourage shorter visits.

Brookfield Public Library has closed its doors as it moves its staff and collections to the new facility at 3541 Park Ave. A re-opening date has not yet been confirmed.