Greenhouse dining at The Darling on West Randolph Credit: John Greenfield

Look, I get it. Aside from the usual Seasonal Affective Disorder challenges, there are plenty of other reasons for Chicagoans to be bummed about the coming of winter in the time of the coronavirus.

As the temperatures drop and residents gather indoors again, COVID-19 cases are spiking once more. On October 27, citing rising test positivity numbers, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced a renewed ban on indoor service at all Chicago bars and restaurants, and by the time you read this, an even stricter lockdown may be in place.

Infectious disease experts say hanging out in indoor public spaces for nonessential purposes is generally a bad idea during this airborne respiratory pandemic. But the colder, wetter weather is making spending time outside less attractive. It’s easy to get discouraged by the situation.

But let’s get real: Those of us who are enjoying good physical and mental health and are relatively young; who have the privilege of working from home; and/or aren’t facing immediate financial difficulties, should stop whining. The Chicagoans dealing with the greatest challenges this winter will be the elderly and people with underlying conditions whose freedom of movement will be limited; residents facing housing and food insecurity; and the essential workers holding society together.

We should also spare a thought for struggling Chicago hospitality employees and business owners. In a more civilized country like New Zealand, they’d be paid a fair stipend to close their establishments during the crisis.

But enough gloom and doom. I’m here to give you a pep talk.

While we all have a responsibility to behave in ways that don’t put ourselves and others at risk, that doesn’t mean you have to be miserable this winter. You might even have more fun than usual if you really embrace the season.

After living through the spring quarantine, you’ve probably got a whole repertoire of indoor activities. But to keep your spirits up when days are short and skies are gray, remember that fire is your friend. I buy candles that smell pleasantly like whiskey and tobacco and light them on overcast days for instant mood elevation. Warm drinks, cinnamon-laden baked goods, thick knit socks, and all that other hygge (Scandinavian-style coziness) jazz will be helpful too.

But the real key to staving off the blues this winter will be to stay active and spend as much time outside as possible, as comfortably as possible. If you don’t normally dress for the weather, now’s the time to start. Make sure you have some decent boots, long johns, and layers of clothing that won’t be a drag if they get wet, made of wool, synthetics, or cotton-poly blends. That doesn’t require spending a fortune at REI—much of this stuff can also be found at thrift or Army-Navy surplus stores. Maybe invest in a good breathable raincoat or a stylish woolen jacket. Snow suits are also going to be popular this winter.

As for activities, I ran the following ideas by Dr. Richard Novak, head of the division of infectious diseases at UIC, to make sure they’re reasonably corona-kosher.

Novak says spending time around a backyard fire pit or bonfire, preferably with face masks and 6-feet distancing, is a “definitely reasonable” way to socialize with nonhousehold members. And, again, open flames are sure to lift your spirits on a chilly night. A patio with heaters or grilling on your back porch are great options too. Invite your friends to Bring Your Own Blanket for extra coziness.

Socially-distanced outdoor dining in Fulton Market
Socially-distanced outdoor dining in Fulton MarketCredit: John Greenfield

Regarding the safety of dining or drinking in open-air, heated restaurant and bar patios with a few friends, Novak said this is “probably OK” as long as the tables are well separated.

Hala Kahiki, the historic tiki bar in River Grove with ornate tropical decor, is a “winter denial” mainstay for me. So I was pleased to hear from manager Jim Oppedisano that the outdoor seating area, watched over by Easter Island-inspired statues, is currently sheltered by a heated tent with open sides for good airflow.

It’s also been fun to see businesses getting creative about using pedestrianized roadways for weatherproof socially distanced service. For example, The Darling on West Randolph has adorable little greenhouses adorned with roses sitting on a grassy lawn that’s normally diagonal parking. And a whole car-free block of Fulton Market, home to eateries like The Publican and Duck Duck Goat, is filled with clear huts and geodesic domes, along with a groovy street mural.

Novak cautioned me about these kinds of shelters, “Airflow is important: the more enclosed a space, the greater the risk.” So if the idea of dining or drinking in a transparent igloo or yurt appeals to you, it’s best to do it with household members only. Moreover, for worker safety, employees should avoid entering these structures while customers are present if possible, or at least everyone should be wearing masks when they do.

For a simpler cold-weather COVID pleasure, try a new outdoor physical activity. Winter biking is an ideal pastime for releasing endorphins and warding off depression. It’s also a handy form of socially distanced transportation that’s easier and more comfortable than it looks. Just make sure the bike you’re riding has fenders and lights. (Divvies are great on both counts.) But don’t worry about what kind of tires it has—ever since Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection after the 1979 blizzard, the city of Chicago has done a great job of plowing the roads.

The author skiing at Montrose Harbor
The author skiing at Montrose HarborCredit: MARK PAYE
The skating ribbon at Maggie Daley Park
The skating ribbon at Maggie Daley ParkCredit: John Greenfield

I’m also a big fan of urban cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Pick up your gear at Viking Ski Shop in Humboldt Park, the city’s only dedicated winter sports store, in business for over half a century. When there’s sufficient snow, my go-to route is the gravel road that runs along the lakefront from Montrose Avenue to the Waveland Clock Tower, with a breathtaking skyline view, followed by a downhill run at nearby Cricket Hill.

That knoll is also great for sledding. Other good destinations include the Dan Ryan Woods, Palmisano Park, Humboldt Park, and the dedicated sledding hill next to Soldier Field.

There’s sure to be a huge demand for ice skating this winter, so hot spots like the Millennium Park rink and the Maggie Daley Park skating ribbon will need strategies to prevent overcrowding. Eight other Chicago Park District rinks are fairly well-distributed around the city. But it would be great if pop-up facilities were installed in ice deserts like Englewood and Garfield Park, including free loaner skates and lessons, so more people could discover this fun, healthy activity. Hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, how about taking a break from spending $56.5 million to fight Governor Pritzker’s graduated income tax plan and sponsoring a couple of rinks?

Taking an outdoor stroll around the free Lincoln Park Zoo is another great COVID-safe option. Currently reservations are required. And I’ll probably head to the Osaka Japanese Garden in Jackson Park this winter to check out Yoko Ono’s 2016 installation“Sky Landing.” The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park and the Morton Arboretum, populated by giant wooden troll sculptures (reservations required), also spring to mind as fun winter walking destinations.

As an amateur musician, I’ve had a blast playing socially distanced porch shows this fall. Novak says this kind of thing is “probably OK” if audience members social distance and wear masks. So I’m looking forward to bundling up and taking in whatever outdoor concerts, theatrical productions, dance performances, and comedy shows talented Chicagoans cook up this winter.

The bottom line is that, despite the COVID threat and a long list of things we can’t do for fun this winter, there’s no need for Chicagoans to lose hope and hibernate. Limited options can be a recipe for creativity, and you may find good times in unexpected places.  v