Lightfoot loosens grip on restaurants and bars — again — to allow 50% capacity

Besides eased capacity restrictions, Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia wants restaurant employees to be vaccinated faster by including them in category 1B, which also covers grocery store workers.

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Dolo restaurant in the Chinatown neighborhood of Chicago, IL on July 27, 2018.

Indoor dining capacity in Chicago bars and restaurants has been restricted to 40% of capacity or 50 people — whichever is less.

Sun-Times file

With vaccinations ramping up, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is once again loosening her grip on restaurants and bars, but not enough to satisfy the hard-hit industry.

The revised regulations, effective immediately, allow Chicago restaurants and bars to increase indoor capacity to 50% or 50 people, whichever is less. Limits had been at 40% or 50 people.

Bars and restaurants that had been forced to stop serving patrons at 11 p.m. can stay open until 1 a.m. It’s a vital lifeline to businesses fighting to survive after twice closing their dining rooms during the pandemic. Alcohol sales by liquor stores and other establishments can continue until 11 p.m. Indoor fitness classes can increase to 20 people.

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Illinois Restaurant Association President Toia understands the mayor’s decision to cautiously reopen as if “turning the dimmer switch” instead of flipping a light switch.

But he still wants Lightfoot to turn that switch faster — by increasing the capacity for each restaurant room or designated area separated by a plexiglass divider from 50 people to 100 or 150.

“You cannot do catering parties with more than 50 people. We’re moving into the spring time here. You’ve got a lot of communions, graduations, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings,” Toia said.

“We would really like to see it get bumped up to 150 per room. But we understand we move in steps here. So getting up to 100 would be better than 50.”

Yet another big help would be vaccinating restaurant employees sooner by “bumping them ahead” to category 1B, instead of 1C, Toia said.

“Grocery store workers are in 1B. Our workers are essential workers, just like the grocery store workers are,” Toia said.

“We feel that restaurants are a big part of the food chain here in the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago and that restaurant workers should be in the same category as grocery store workers in 1B and be able to make appointments and get the vaccine right now.”

Len DeFranco, owner of Hawkeye’s Bar & Grill, 1458 W. Taylor St., said Lightfoot’s looser restrictions are “welcome” but not enough for Chicago restaurants in “survival mode.”

Operating at 50% “is just not sufficient to get to break-even to pay your rent, to pay your utilities, insurance, your dram shop, your liquor license and all the rest of the overhead. It just simply isn’t enough,” DeFranco said.

“Those are fixed costs that do not change based on whether you’re closed completely, as we were during the summer or whether you’re at 40 or 50%. … We want more. Nobody’s making money at these numbers.”

DeFranco said restaurant owners “don’t want to be reckless” and want to be “good partners in killing this invisible enemy of a virus.” But they need predictability and a “pathway to 100%” capacity.

“What we’d really like is some certainty. We cannot just start filling these restaurants. We have to have staff. We have to get the sous chef in. We have to increase the inventory. We’d like a little bit of predictability like any other business owner,” he said.

“We just don’t see the relationship between 40, 50, 60, 70% [capacity] and a spread event. ... We were open at 40% for months. The positivity rate went down. We were closed over the summer and the positivity rate went up. It’s common sense that restaurants are not a spreader in any sense. Can they be? Of course. But so can the post office. So can airports. We just have to be careful.”

Lightfoot understands the “great desire” restaurants have to “open back up as fully as possible” after a “horrendous year.” But she also knows what has happened “almost every single time” other major cities have “opened up very quickly with very high percentages.”

“They had to close. I want Chicago restaurants and bars to stay open. Period. So we are taking a much more cautious approach,” the mayor said.

“I know that doesn’t sit well with some folks. But I’d rather be slow and steady and continue to be open than throw open the gates to appease a certain segment and see our cases explode ... and have to shut it down for a third time.”

Even with the increased restaurant capacity, other remaining city controls will be “rigidly enforced,” said Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno.

Bars and brewers must offer food to serve indoor patrons or establish a partnership with a local restaurant. There’s a maximum of six patrons per table. Bar patrons and restaurant and bar tables must sit six feet apart. Face coverings must be worn at all times — except when eating and drinking and patrons must be seated while eating and drinking.

Sox, Cubs have ‘very good plans’ for allowing spectators

A Sox season ticket holder, Lightfoot also said “there will be a point some time this season where you’ll see fans in the stands” at Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field. She didn’t reveal details, except to say that both the Sox and Cubs have “come up with very good plans” to make that possible.

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