Restaurant owners demand city expand indoor dining capacity to 50%

Indoor dining has been at 40% capacity for two weeks as COVID-19 metrics improve, but some restaurant owners are saying they’re barely breaking even.

SHARE Restaurant owners demand city expand indoor dining capacity to 50%
Roger Romanelli, the Chicago Restaurants Coalition’s coordinator, speaks during a news conference on Jan. 12, 2021.

Roger Romanelli, the Chicago Restaurants Coalition’s coordinator, speaks during a news conference on Jan. 12, 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Almost a year after their businesses were shut down at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, owners of some Chicago restaurants hope to expand indoor dining capacity even more to help keep their establishments afloat.

The Chicago Restaurants Coalition, representing hundreds of restaurant and bar owners, is asking the city to increase indoor dining capacity to the lesser of 50% capacity or 100 people by Thursday.

Roger Romanelli, the coalition’s coordinator, cited the city’s declining COVID-19 positivity rate, currently 2.9%, the lowest since June. He added that major Midwestern cities have all reopened indoor dining at 50% capacity or above.

“If St. Louis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Indianapolis are at or above 50%, I think Chicago needs to get with the rest of our Midwest cities and get our restaurants up to 50%,” Romanelli said.

Last month, the city unveiled a roadmap to ease regulations and expand indoor capacity as long as COVID-19 metrics improve.

Since Feb. 16, city guidelines have allowed restaurants to operate at 40% capacity, or 50 people per space, whichever is lower. According to the roadmap, capacity can only increase from 40% to 50% after two weeks of maintaining a “Moderate-Risk” level for the following metrics:

  • COVID cases diagnosed per day:Currently averaging 283, in the “Moderate-Risk” level.
  • COVID test positivity: Currently averaging 2.9%, in the “Low-Risk” level.
  • Emergency Departments visits for COVID-like illness: This number must be below 800 new visits to reach the “Moderate-Risk” level.
  • ICU beds occupied by COVID patients: This number must be below 300 occupants to reach the “Moderate-Risk” level.

The coalition also wants the city to revive its survival grant program for restaurants and allocate $50 million — enough to fund 5,000 grants at $10,000 each. Back in December, 2,000 restaurants entered a lottery for 1,000 available grants; half received support from the city.

Romanelli said the grants could help restaurants recoup the losses from the near 180 days they were entirely shut down, especially when it comes to maintaining staff and paying employees’ health insurance.

Jodi Agee, owner of Jefferson Tap and Grille, 325 N. Jefferson St., said despite the city’s efforts with several grant programs, she finds them few and far between.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in the whole grant system,” Agee said. “I haven’t been able to get one grant and I’ve pretty much applied for all of them.”

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