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Looking for solution to winter outdoor dining, Chicago launches contest with $5K prize

Thus far, folks have come with a range of proposals available for public viewing, from ice bars to Swiss-style fondue chalets.
/ Source: TODAY

Outdoor dining has become somewhat of a respite for many Americans after months quarantined at home. But as fall quickly approaches, the question arises of how restaurants will function during the colder months if indoor seating is still off the table. For its answer, Chicago is looking to the public.

When states and counties began lifting restrictions on people being out in public in May, businesses quickly adapted. Some eateries developed clever ideas to enforce social distancing while many cities blocked off sidewalks and streets to allow room for diners to safely sit. In places where indoor dining rooms remain closed as the weather starts to shift, there is increasing urgency for further adaptation.

On Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the City of Chicago Winter Dining Challenge, which encourages folks to think of safe, viable ideas for eating out in frigid temperatures — with a solid cash prize of $5,000.

"Chicago winters have a reputation," Lightfoot tweeted. "We're asking Chicagoans to share their ideas for innovative winter outdoor dining solutions that adhere to COVID-19 protocols so we can support our favorite local restaurants while keeping Chicagoans healthy."

City of Chicago residents who want to participate in the contest can submit their suggestions online. The city, who partnered with BMO Harris Bank, the Illinois Restaurant Association and California-based design firm IDEO to launch the contest, will award three $5,000 cash prizes for the best ideas. According to the press release, entries will be judged by a panel of local restaurants and community members in each of the following categories: "outdoor, standalone structures," "indoor-adjacent spaces" and "cultural shifts making winter dining more appealing."

To be considered, concepts must include a summary of the solution, user research, technical descriptions and prototypes like sketches or models, along with other required materials. Ideas to "stimulate safe outdoor dining" must consider not only the needs of the customer but also the staff, delivery partners, janitorial staff and construction workers.

Entries will be accepted through 11:30 p.m. on Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 7.

Thus far, folks have come with a range of proposals available for public viewing, from ice bars to Swiss-style fondue chalets that can be built and taken down in a day. A few rather creative ideas involve the use of old phone booths and city buses.

But before you submit that genius idea, keep in mind that feasible concepts will only work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 if there is adequate air flow. On Aug. 13, a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco was ordered to take down its outdoor igloo dining concept for that reason.

"The key to outdoor dining is the free flow of air," Dr. Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA told TODAY Food about the plastic enclosures. "It’s not clear to me that these domes will keep people in them safe nor the servers who would have to enter the domes to serve the people inside them, who would be dining presumably without masks on, with poor airflow. Given the current setup, it seems that these domes might end up promoting transmission instead of preventing it."