By Kelly Pollock, feature writer for Buzz Cafe
Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March, every business in the Oak Park Arts District has been affected. Restaurants had to close their dining rooms, shops had to go online, and service businesses had to go virtual. Now that Illinois has entered Phase 4 of Governor Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan, the Oak Park Arts District is slowly coming back to life, although “business as usual” means something very different than it did just a few months ago.
When restaurants and bars were ordered to close their dining rooms beginning March 17, it was supposed to last only through March 30. The initial two-week closure stretched into April and through to the end of May when outdoor dining with social distancing was allowed. The Village of Oak Park has been working with local businesses to facilitate outdoor dining in nontraditional ways. On Lombard Avenue just south of Harrison Street, MORA Asian Kitchen and Buzz Café now share an outdoor patio that was previously several metered parking spaces.
Retail businesses have also had to adapt. Val’s halla Records at 239 Harrison Street is open again with new safety procedures in place and an option to schedule a 30-minute private access time before or after regular store hours. Says manager Shayne Blakeley, “Not long ago this [pandemic] would have been the ‘death knell’ for the store, but Trevor and Jaxon Toppen and their whole contingent have worked ‘regardless of exhaustion.’ The website looks amazing, the stock is great, and more is on the way!”
Bead in Hand at 145 Harrison Street is another retailer that is thinking of new ways to accommodate customers and stay safe. Customers are asked to schedule an appointment for in-store shopping during regular business hours. Only two people are allowed in the store at one time. Drop-in customers are welcome if there is no appointment scheduled. The staff is happy to pull specific items ahead of time so that customers can spend their appointment time focusing on beads.
Despite the pandemic coinciding with the March grand opening of Studio 928 at 911 S. Lombard Avenue, Cheryl Vargas has continually found ways to make sure that everyone is making “Time for ART!” “Coupled with teaching virtual art classes, to-go kits have been our bread and butter,” says Cheryl. And while she is still offering virtual paint parties, the studio is now open for private in-person parties as well. The parties are limited to ten guests and masks are required. “We have become very popular with companies and small businesses who want to offer their employees a much needed creative break.”
Needing to go virtual hasn’t stopped Gigi Hudson and everyone at The Actors Garden at 909 S. Lombard Avenue from sharing their love of theatre. “We have been doing virtual classes and workshops since March. It has been surprisingly fun and feedback from the families has been great,” says Gigi. They are also running their four-week summer theatre camps virtually. The first session has 50 students working on two musicals that were written specifically to be performed online. “One of the musicals, Through the Screen, was written entirely by our playwright-in-residence Dave Hudson and will see its world premiere with us in July.” Session two begins on July 20 and still has a few spots open.
At L’Institut français d’Oak Park at 11 Harrison Street, everything has gone virtual as well. “Our classes are being taught via Zoom and our students are thankful to be able to continue learning and see their classmates each week,” says owner Stacy Fifer. Conversation Café which is usually held in person at Léa in Downtown Oak Park is also convening via Zoom and people have attended from around the world. Recently, there were participants from Sante Fe, New Mexico; Whidbey Island near Seattle; Montreal, Canada; and Limoges, France. In the fall, L’Institut will use a combination of in-person and online methods to connect with students.
Unfortunately, some businesses weren’t able to survive in “brick and mortar” form due to the pandemic. Jake’s Place Books which opened eighteen months ago at 142 Harrison Street has closed their storefront but will continue as a virtual presence. As Bill Fletcher, a co-owner of Jake’s said, “The store was so small and the virus is so present that we just couldn’t figure out a way to reopen and be safe. We loved being a part of the Arts District community and will consider ourselves a virtual member through our continuing online sales.”
So whether you’re looking to dine, shop, create, or learn, the businesses of the Oak Park Arts District are ready and waiting. Put on a mask, stay six feet apart, and be safe!