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Lightfoot tightens regulations on bars, restaurants, gyms after COVID-19 spike among young people

Bars, taverns, breweries and other establishments without retail food licenses that serve alcohol for on-site consumption will be prohibited from serving customers indoors.

Dozens of people dine outside Tavern on Rush in Gold Coast Saturday, July 4, 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot wasn’t messing around when she warned of a rollback if young people didn’t stop their risky behavior. Now, bars, restaurants, gyms and salons are paying the price.

With the 7-day “rolling average” of coronavirus cases at 233 — up from 192 a week ago — Lightfoot on Monday authorized a series of “surgical steps” aimed at preventing an even broader retreat.

Effective at 12:01 a.m. Friday:

• 494 bars, taverns breweries and other establishments without a retail food license that serve alcohol for on-site consumption will be prohibited from serving customers indoors. Of those, 37 have outdoor patios. That leaves 450 license holders severely impacted.

The city is working with those establishments to find “as much outdoor capacity as possible,” Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development, said Monday.

• Maximum party size and table occupancy at restaurants, bars, taverns and breweries will be reduced from 10 people to six.

• Indoor fitness classes will be limited to 10 people, down from 50 under state guidelines.

• Facials, shaves and other personal services requiring the removal of face coverings will no longer be permitted.

• Residential property managers will be asked to limit guest entry to five-per-unit to avoid indoor gatherings and parties. The Chicagoland Apartment Association has agreed to post notices in large apartment buildings similar to those warning residents and visitors to wear face masks. Enforcement will be complaint-driven, with the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection vowing to “triage” the most egregious complaints to 311.

Last week, Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady warned of a rollback if the 7-day rolling average of new coronavirus cases topped 200. It’s now at 233, which the Centers for Disease Control considers a “high incidence state.” The 14-day average has topped 200. And the “percent positivity rate” remains over 5%.

“For all of those reasons, we felt strongly that it was necessary to work to take some focused actions now ... to keep us from having to take the very large steps backwards that we want to avoid at all costs,” Arwady said during a conference call with reporters.

Arwady branded bars “one of the higher-risk scenarios,” in part because they’re a magnet for 18-to-29-year-olds, among whom cases are rising faster than any other age group in Chicago.

“People are not only talking and socializing and having fun. They’re often needing to raise their voice, project and yell. For all of those reasons, they are broadly considered one of the higher-risk settings,” she said.

“Similarly where we’ve dialed back the maximum party size within indoor dining from 10 people to six people, that’s just recognizing that we want to do what we can to limit the number of folks that people are having that close contact with within six feet, [for] more than 10 minutes without a mask.”

Mayekar said Chicago “remains the largest open city in America” and the “surgical” restrictions are intended to keep it that way, preventing another stay-at-home shutdown.

“What we’re seeing is what you call `bubble trouble,’ where we really need to restrict the number of individuals that folks congregate with. … We need to be more cautious there. We’re gonna take a number of measures later this week to specifically hone in on that population,” he said.

Pat Doerr, managing director of the 200-plus-member Hospitality Business Association of Chicago, said he wants to see the “science behind” the city’s rollback decision.

“The hospitality industry has lost half of its jobs since March in the state of Illinois. This brings none of them back to work. This will make it harder for these businesses to hang on. How hard depends on how long these restrictions last,” Doerr said.

“Very importantly, this reduces maximum table sizes from 10 to six for everyone outdoors. Basically a 33-to-40% occupancy reduction outdoors is going to be a death blow for way more than bars. That is affecting everyone. There might be data to support it. I just haven’t seen it.”

It was just over a month ago that the city allowed bars to reopen to serving customers in open-air settings. Then, on June 26, indoor customers were again allowed in restaurants and bars, with a limit on capacity.

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia, while not happy about the rollback, is willing to live with it if it means avoiding even more rigid restrictions that force restaurants to close their doors to indoor dining again.

“We do not want to go back to shelter-in-place. We see that cities like Miami and San Antonio, Phoenix and Los Angeles are really going way backwards,” Toia said.

“If we go into total lockdown like we were a few months ago, this will be the death of the hospitality industry in the city of Chicago. So we’d rather work and have some of our outdoor dining still open and 25% capacity in the restaurant and six people-per-table than to go to total lockdown with no indoor dining at all.”

Last week, Lightfoot warned of a rollback unless young people, who account for 30% of new COVID-19 cases in the city, get the message.

“Some of you have joked that I’m like the mom who will turn the car around when you’re acting up. No, friends. It’s actually worse. I won’t just turn the car around. I’m gonna shut it off. I’m gonna kick you out. And I’m gonna make you walk home. That’s who I am. That’s who I must be for you and everyone else in this city to make sure that we continue to be safe,” the mayor said on that day.

“I don’t want to be that person if I don’t have to. But I will if you make me. And right now, we are on the precipice. We are dangerously close to going back to a dangerous state of conditions.”

Throughout the pandemic, Lightfoot has not hesitated to do whatever she believes is necessary to keep the city safe. Her arms-folded, stern-faced image inspired a hysterical stream of memes she cleverly embraced.

The mayor famously shut down the lakefront in late March because Chicagoans couldn’t be trusted to maintain social distance. She also cut off citywide liquor sales at 9 p.m. to prevent people from gathering outside those stores.

On Monday, the mayor made no apologies for playing the heavy — again.

“While we aren’t near the peak of the pandemic from earlier this year, none of us wants to go back there, and we feel these restrictions will help limit further community spread,” Lightfoot was quoted as saying in a press release.

Last weekend, the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection conducted 70 investigations and issued a dozen citations to six businesses accused of ignoring the city’s Phase 4 guidelines.

Commissioner Rosa Escareno said the city has: received nearly 1,700 reopening complaints; conducted 609 investigations; issued 73 warnings and notices-to-correct; closed two businesses; and issued 36 citations.

The 14-day quarantine order that now applies to anyone arriving in Chicago from 17 states is not being strictly enforced. Compliance is strictly voluntary.

Although she is not aware of any fines being issued, Arwady argued that the order has been “very successful from an education standpoint.”

“It’s gotten a lot of attention. It has gotten a lot of people to be really re-thinking their vacation plans or adapting their business travel, changing it where it’s not necessary, which is the biggest goal,” she said.