May 19, 2012
Downtown Chicago ahead of the NATO summit, which takes place Sunday and Monday, was given over to tourists in shorts and T-shirts as a good share of the workforce opted to telecommute Friday or take the day off.
While commuters relished the breathing room on morning trains and shopkeepers felt the pinch as fewer Loop workers ordered croissants or smoothies, the city's main corridors took on the vibe of a spring vacation.
The outdoor tables at Park Cafe in Millennium Park, for instance, drew a smattering of tourists, among them Alex and Jenni Meyers, who were visiting from Carmel, Ind., with their three young children.
The family was planning to squeeze in the museums before they closed for the summit weekend, and then to chill out tomorrow at the beach or a pool. "We're intentionally not doing anything tomorrow because of NATO," Alex Meyers said.
Meanwhile, business haunts that are typically jammed at the noon hour were finding themselves with some unfilled tables.
"We thought we'd get diplomats and their entourages," said Tracy Smith, general manager of Bandera, the Michigan Avenue restaurant known for its rotisserie chicken and skillet cornbread. But the restaurant has yet to experience a single security check, she said, adding, "They have to be dining somewhere."
It was hardly business as usual, as NATO summit planners had hoped, but more like "business light," and the slowdown was expected to get more pronounced over the weekend and into Monday, the final day of the summit, when major traffic tie-ups are expected as delegations head to the airport.
In fact, increasing numbers of businesses were deciding late this week to close, among them the Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique on North Wabash, which will be closed Sunday and Monday. The owners made the decision out of concern for the security of employees trying to get to work, said Sarah Katele, co-manager.
Custom tailor Richard Bennett, at 175 W. Jackson Blvd., decided to close on Saturday after a very slow Friday and is removing display merchandise from its window as a precaution.
"I'm doing it not to tempt someone who might say, 'This is a business that caters to the 1 percent,'" said owner Albert Karoll.
Many of the city's prominent corporations and associations were giving workers the option to telecommute, among them Aon, Boeing, Blue Cross Blue Shield, CME Group and Grant Thornton accounting firm.
With offices partially empty and some cultural institutions dark for the weekend, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the major downtown museums, a number of restaurants opted to close, including Rhapsody, adjacent to the Symphony Center, and Heaven on Seven's location on Wabash.
"There was no business, said Rhapsody's executive chef, Dean Zanella. "We had exactly one reservation. ... It's brutal."
The NATO host committee says that despite some inconvenience during the summit, the international meeting will ultimately pay big dividends to the city in the form of future investment and overseas visitors. Some business executives share that view.
"In the long run, it's going to improve the world-class status of the city and help with international tourism," said Bob Agra, co-owner of Chicago's First Lady cruises and Mercury Chicago's Skyline Cruiseline.
As for the weekend, "We really don't know," he said Friday.
Meanwhile, a number of workers and business owners enjoyed breaks in their routines.
"They told us to dress down," said law firm staffer Gina Daya, who was lunching outdoors with colleagues Friday. "We're not usually allowed to wear jeans and flip-flops. We got to wear jeans for the whole week."
At Loop Juice, in the Chicago French Market, owner Paul Niemczyk planned to close through Monday because of a drop-off in business.
The silver lining, he said, was "an extra weekend off."
Meanwhile, suburban restaurants, including Maya Del Sol in Oak Park, were eager to lap up customers avoiding downtown.
The summit "comes with a lengthy list of roadway closings, parking bans and mass transit reroutes," the restaurant said in an email to customers. "Come to Maya this week for our special NATO-jito."
A take-off on a mojito, the drink features blueberry Stoli, in honor of NATO's theme color.
Tribune reporters Wailin Wong and Emily York contributed.
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