Restaurant owners want city to expand indoor dining for Valentine’s weekend

With COVID-19 positivity rates on the decline, the Chicago Restaurants Coalition wants the city to increase indoor dining capacity to 50% or a 50-person maximum.

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Roger Romanelli, the Chicago Restaurants Coalition coordinator, stands at the Taylor Street Public Plaza in the Little Italy neighborhood on Jan. 12, 2021.

Roger Romanelli, coordinator of the Chicago Restaurants Coalition — the group that consists of restaurant and food service owners — called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to expand indoor dining for Valentine’s weekend in a few days.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago restaurant owners hope to celebrate Valentine’s Day by opening their doors to more customers this weekend.

Members of the Chicago Restaurants Coalition called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot and all 50 aldermen to increase indoor dining capacity to 50% or impose a 50-person maximum by Feb. 12, just in time for the holiday. Roger Romanelli, the coalition’s coordinator, pointed to the city’s declining COVID-19 positivity rate, which has fallen by nearly 1.5% since partial indoor dining was restored two weeks ago.

“It’s critical to understand: Restaurants have lost millions and millions of dollars during the pandemic, but especially during the holiday season,” Romanelli said. “The COVID rate is down, we think the time is right. We think restaurants have earned this by working so hard.”

The coalition is also questioning the city’s Phase 4 business allowance policies. Romanelli compared the current 25% indoor dining capacity to that of retail stores, personal services, health and fitness centers and indoor recreation centers like bowling alleys — all of which limit indoor spaces to 40% capacity.

The coalition even submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the city’s Health Department and Business Affairs and Consumer Protections Department to inquire about any direct links between restaurants and COVID-19 spread. Since June 1, the data shows just under 300 restaurant employees tested positive for COVID-19 and 22 restaurants closed for non-compliance with city regulations.

“[The data] shows that restaurants were being overwhelmingly safe, as well as their employees,” Romanelli said. “We believe [the data] indicates clearly that most restaurants comply fully with City Hall’s COVID-19 prevention rule.”

When the city’s positivity rate dropped enough to allow twice-closed Chicago restaurants to reopen to 50% capacity, Lightfoot was more conservative. She held capacity to 25% for fear of reopening too quickly and reversing the progress the city had made.

But it looks like she’s now willing to turn what she calls the “dimmer switch” on Chicago’s reopening to a higher level — just in time for couples to celebrate a romantic Valentine’s Day weekend dinner.

Lightfoot didn’t come right out and say 50 percent capacity would arrive in time for Valentine’s Day. But, at a Monday news conference, the smile on her face said it all.

“We are working on providing a notification for later this week that will address some of those issues for sure,” she said.

But what about that mayoral smile? Doesn’t it telegraph an increase in restaurant capacity?

“Our restaurants have been extraordinarily hard hit. Restaurants, bars and our hospitality industry in general. Valentine’s weekend is one of the few bright spots for the restaurant industry over the course of the first quarter, which is a tough time for them. January, February are typically down. There’s ground to be made up. I’m very well aware of that,” she said.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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