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Chicago to require proof of vaccination at restaurants, bars, gyms

To avoid burdening restaurants and bars during the holidays, the changes will be effective Jan. 3. Houses of worship, groceries without indoor dining and restaurants and bars at O’Hare and Midway airports will be exempt.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement that will apply to patrons of some restaurants, bars and gyms in the city.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday announced a COVID-19 vaccine requirement that will apply to patrons of some restaurants, bars and gyms in the city.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago restaurant, bar and gym patrons will be required to show proof of vaccination and a photo ID before dining, drinking and exercising indoors, but weekly testing will be enough for employees, under mayoral mitigations unveiled Tuesday to curb a winter surge tied to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

“We will leave no options off the table when it comes to protecting the safety of our residents,” Lightfoot told a City Hall news conference.

The new rules take effect Jan. 3.

“We didn’t want to get to this point, but we simply have no choice. ... This is what we have to do to keep our health system from being overwhelmed by this new wave.”

Lightfoot said she hasn’t been “this concerned about COVID-19 since the early days of the pandemic,” noting that, according to Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, the Omicron variant can spread three times more easily.

To those asking if “more extreme mitigations” will be needed, Lightfoot said the “answer lies with the unvaccinated.”

“Our future is gonna depend upon whether or not they stop being hesitant and get the vaccine,” she said.

“I don’t want to shut the economy down. I don’t want to have to take other mitigation steps. We have been through hell and back in the last 20 months. Nobody wants to go back to that time, least of all me. ... We hope the alarm we sound today gets through to people.”

A chart showing the dominance of the COVID-19 virus’ Omicron variant was on display at Tuesday’s news conference.
A chart showing the dominance of the COVID-19 virus’ Omicron variant was on display at Tuesday’s news conference.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Houses of worship, grocery stores without indoor dining sections and restaurants and bars at O’Hare and Midway airports are exempt. So are soup kitchens and other charitable food services, as well as schools and day care centers.

Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, called it a “pretty measured approach.” It won’t apply to anyone entering an establishment for less than 10 minutes, such as to order or pick up carry-out food or make deliveries.

“This is all about taking your mask off or drinking or in a gym situation to work out,” Karr said.

Lightfoot agreed to the Jan. 3 start date, and the employee exemption, at the request of Karr and Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia.

The delay is intended to help restaurants during the busy holiday season. And Toia feared a vaccine mandate could exacerbate staff shortages as high as 25% in some Chicago restaurants that already has dramatically reduced service.

“Usually in a dining room, a wait person has like a four-table station. Right now, they’re doing six- or seven-table stations. That’s why people are waiting longer” for their food, Toia said.

“If you lose more people, what is the wait supposed to do a 10-table station? It ain’t happening. ... You go out to eat for the food. But you come back for the service.”

The vaccination proof rule applies to anyone over age 5 who wants to dine indoors, visit a Chicago gym or enter an entertainment venue where food or drink is served. However, only patrons over age 16 must provide a driver’s license or another ID that matches their vaccination record.

Attendees at Lollapalooza in Grant Park were required to show proof of vaccination or of a negative COVID-19 test before entering the music festival.
Attendees at Lollapalooza in Grant Park were required to show proof of vaccination or of a negative COVID-19 test before entering the music festival. A similar requirement will be enforced starting Jan. 3 at some Chicago restaurants, bars and gyms, though there are exceptions.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

If restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues hire workers who are not fully vaccinated, they must “ensure that those employees both continue to mask when interacting with patrons and provide proof of a weekly negative test” for COVID-19, the policy states.

“I’m guessing everybody in Chicago knows somebody who has COVID right now because are in the middle of the biggest COVID surge that we have seen since before vaccines were available,” Arwady said.

On Dec. 15, Chicago had 2,800 cases diagnosed in a single day. That’s nearly the highest daily caseload since the pandemic began.

Over the next week to 10 days, Arwady said she expects the city’s daily record for new cases to be broken. But that may not be the peak.

“I expect we will see a little bit of a dip around Christmas. And then, we will see a post-Christmas surge just like we saw around Thanksgiving. And our concern is that we have a Delta surge now with this Omicron surge on top of it,” the commissioner said.

Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady at a news conference.
Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady at Tuesday’s news conference. She said thanks to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, “we will see a post-Christmas surge just like we saw around Thanksgiving.”
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, said enforcing a vaccine requirement for restaurant patrons is “certainly going to be more burdensome.” It will add “another layer of bureaucracy” and costs to restaurants already “thinking about reducing their hours because of no help,” Tunney said.

But if the alternative is another indoor dining shutdown or more capacity limits, Tunney said requiring vaccination proof is “probably a reasonable middle-ground.”

“There’s no good coming out of this thing. But given where we’re at and this latest surge, I guess it’s the prudent thing to do at this point. We certainly don’t want to be shut down,” Tunney said.

“I just hope we don’t have to do it for long. It’ll increase payroll costs. You’ll need to have more than a host checking ID’s and cards. You’re adding another administrative process and we’re about customer relations.”

Many theaters and sporting events have been requiring proof of vaccination for months.

Twice during the pandemic, Chicago restaurants and bars have had to stop serving patrons indoors. They have also endured months of capacity limits.

Roughly 20% of Chicago’s more than 7,300 restaurants did not survive the pandemic.

Yet another indoor shutdown would only trigger even more closings, Toia said.

A vaccine requirement for restaurant employees could nearly double that 20% closure rate, he said.

What about the problems posed by having to deny entry to unvaccinated restaurant patrons who demand to be seated anyway?

The mayor “said she would think about some penalties we could have in place if that is a problem, if someone is giving someone a hard time at the door,” Toia said.

Karr pointed to “all of the negative interactions around mask” requirements. He urged City Hall to help enforce the vaccine mandate if there is “significant resistance.”

“If somebody is simply gonna refuse to comply and causes a scene, we hope somebody shows up to help,” Karr said.

Under questioning, Lightfoot said the health order applies to weddings and private parties where food is served and people have their masks off while eating and drinking.

Enforcement will use “progressive discipline,” starting with warnings, similar to how capacity limits and the ban on indoor dining were enforced. Fines will follow. Closures will be a last resort.

“If we’ve got repeat offenders and we need to shut them down, we’ll shut them down,,” she said.

“I don’t want to have to go there. We should be way past that point where we see people...trying to put their profits over the health and safety of their patrons and their employees. And if we see that, then we’re gonna bring the hammer down. There’s no question.”

Chicago’s test positivity rate is 7.3% - nearly double the 4.1% daily average of last week. And the city is averaging 1,776 cases a day, up 79% from 991 a week ago.

Hospitalizations are up 12%, from 56 a day a week ago to 62 a day now.

Also Tuesday, Lightfoot said her decision to encourage top aides to work from home if possible through year’s end had nothing to do with staffers testing positive after attending the holiday party she held last Thursday.

The mayor said the work-from-home offer was made “out of an abundance of caution.” She insisted her office staff is “highly vaccinated,’ that party attendees were required to provide negative COVID-19 tests and that those singing karaoke without masks were “separated from people in the audience” wearing masks.