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Fulton Market restaurants urge Lightfoot to restore 10-per-table limit

By reducing table maximums from 10 to six, restaurant owners say Lightfoot unfairly “punished” restaurants for the bad behavior of a handful of bars.

Formento’s dining room
Formento’s and other Fulton Market restaurants want the city to ease the six-person table limit for inside dining.
Formentos.com

Restaurant owners fighting for survival in Chicago’s once-thriving Fulton Market district urged Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday to restore the 10-person-per-table maximum reduced to six to stop maskless young people from flocking to bars.

Last month, Lightfoot made good on a threat to roll back restrictions if young people didn’t stop their risky behavior.

She ordered taverns, breweries and other establishments without a retail food license to stop serving customers indoors and reduced the maximum party size and table occupancy at restaurants, bars, taverns and breweries from 10 people to six.

For restaurants limited to carryout only during the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, it was unfair punishment and yet another in a string of devastating blows.

“It’s a classification of a private event versus just being a small gathering. It’s a completely different tier from our private event spaces being able to be sold,” said Phil Walters, owner of Formento’s, 925 W. Randolph St.

“We do have lots of inventory that are large tables that can no longer be used now. It just doesn’t make sense for guests when they come in with five to six guests to be put at a giant table. Now, our spaces is no longer viable.”

Walters said lumping restaurants into the same category as bars threatens to allow “bad players to bring down an entire industry ... that is already heavily impaired.”

That’s why he’s pleading with Lightfoot to restore restaurants to the 10-per-table limit.

“We’re starting to go back in the [wrong] direction in regards to peoples’ confidence about going out and being part of the life of Chicago,” Walters told the Sun-Times.

“I’ve purchased thousands of dollars of PPE. I’ve purchased thousands of dollars of sanitizer. We have brought in noncontact thermometers for all sections. We have scrapped all of our menus, which were a complete cost of paper products. ... Most people get sick at home because they put raw chicken on the same cutting board that they prepare salad. We’ve observed this thing to the point where we’re almost a hospital.”

Ron Cain, owner of Kuma’s Korner at 852 W. Fulton Market, said the six-person-per-table limit has forced him to turn away customers he cannot afford to lose at a time when sales are down “more than 50%.”

“We have had families come in with more than six people, but less than 10. And we’re unable to seat them together. ... At this point, every sale matters. You don’t want to have to refuse people if you don’t have to,” Cain told the Sun-Times.

“I don’t think it’s intentional. We’re just getting lumped into that category [with bars] and I don’t think it’s proper. I’ve seen bars where people are just standing on top of each other and not [wearing masks] or social distancing, whereas in restaurants, we are.”

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady slammed the door on restoring restaurants to the 10-person-per-table limit.

“Not a chance. Not right now. Not as numbers are on the way up,” Arwady said.

“When you are at a restaurant indoors, by definition pretty much, the people at your table have just come into your bubble because you have to take your mask off. People are sitting close. They’re in a social setting, and we have seen examples of spread.”

The average number of cases per day in Chicago is 273 and rising. Only when it drops below 200 cases per day will the city think about raising the per-table limit, Arwady said.

“When things are under control, that’s the setting when you can loosen restrictions. But, in the meantime, that six-person requirement for indoor dining is appropriate and will remain in place,” the commissioner said.

Although Lightfoot and Arwady call the shots on public health orders, a letter from the Fulton Market restaurant owners was sent to all 50 aldermen as well as the mayor.