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Lightfoot offers Chicago restaurants some relief, but trade group calls it a ‘baby step’

Instead of raising indoor capacity from 25% to 50%, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is “turning the dimmer switch” — freezing capacity at 25% but allowing Chicago restaurants to serve 50 people “per room,” up from 25.

The dining booths at Formento’s Italian restaurant in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood in August.
An empty dining room at Formento’s Italian restaurant in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. The city is starting to loosen restrictions on indoor dining, but not as much as the Illinois Restaurant Association would like.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Chicago restaurants and bars can serve more indoor customers over Valentine’s and President’s Day weekend, but the Illinois Restaurant Association called it only a “baby step” toward the reopening the group seeks.

Restaurants and bars fighting for survival had hoped Mayor Lori Lightfoot would raise indoor capacity to 50%.

Instead, Lightfoot turned the dimmer switch yet again. She froze indoor capacity at 25%, but allowed restaurants and bars to start serving 50 people “per room or floor,” whichever is less, beginning Thursday. That’s up from 25 people currently.

“My goal is to make sure that we can get restaurants open safely in a way that does not lead to us needing to close them again,” Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady told a City Hall news conference Wednesday. “My goal is to move as quickly as it is safe to move and not to get into a situation where we have a third surge.”

Although key health metrics have improved in recent months, the risk “remains high,” Arwady said.

The number of new cases-per-day now stands at 466; it needs to be under 200. Chicago’s rolling positivity rate now stands at 4.7%, with a lot of that improvement traced to increased testing capacity, she said.

“You have to take off your mask to eat and drink. By definition, you’re gathering, sort of in close quarters. And the evidence suggests that there is some more risk in those settings,” Arwady said.

To increase restaurant and bar capacity to 40%, Lightfoot wants Chicago to drop below 400 new cases per day for three straight days. The positivity rate, emergency room visits and ICU bed occupancy must remain in the “moderate risk” level.

“I’m very hopeful that, just over the next few weeks, if we continue to see the progress that we’ve made already, we’ll be at a point where we’ll be able to move to a 50% capacity,” Arwady said.

The Chicago Restaurants Coalition reacted with a press release, headlined: “No Valentine’s Day Card for Mayor Lightfoot as She Holds 25% Indoor Dining Capacity in Place.”

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said Lightfoot’s go-slow approach rewards downtown restaurants with multiple rooms and penalizes neighborhood establishments with only one dining room.

“It’s a baby step. We would like to be at straight-out 40 or 50% capacity with no limits on rooms,” Toia said.

“It’s still very hard on our independent restaurants in our 77 communities out there ... with only one room. That’s why we’re hoping within the next week, if we see these metrics met, that we will get to 40 or 50%.”

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather restaurants, was equally disappointed.

“For neighborhood restaurants that are smaller — there’s no change. It’s still devastating to neighborhood restaurants. There’s very little relief coming from the administration in our neighborhoods for these small independent restaurants,” Tunney said.

“Unfortunately, we’ve lost a large percentage of them already. It’s almost gonna be a year, right? Those people do not have that kind of capital to keep going. Even if they did get grants from the federal government, they’ve gone through that and still haven’t been able to survive.”

Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) countered that the mayor’s go-slow approach makes sense until more is known about whether the more contagious coronavirus variant is taking hold in Chicago.

“We don’t want to give people the false sense that this pandemic is over. It may not be. … We can’t afford to take that risk. And if you wait for the spread to begin, you really can’t stop it,” Hopkins said.

“We have to continue to be cautious and very slowly ease up on the restrictions. I know that’s not welcome news particularly for restaurants who see the decline in positivity and really want to throw their doors wide open again. We simply can’t do that right now because of the very real threat that this highly transmissible variant [is out there] and it’s going to target places where people are indoors and unmasked. That means a restaurant.”

Two of Tunney’s three Ann Sather locations have two rooms each, allowing for up to 100 diners today. The third has just one room, he said.

Tunney noted Chicago’s positivity rate is “dropping nicely,” just as it did last summer, when indoor dining was allowed at 40% capacity.

“Whether or not we’re worried about the new strain or whatever, I just think that, if people do it responsibly — social distancing, wearing masks — we can do it at 40%, similar to what we did last year,” Tunney said.

Even with the 50-people-per-room or floor, other city controls remain. Bars and brewers must offer food to serve indoor patrons or establish a partnership with a local restaurant. There’s a maximum of six 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. Bars and restaurants must close at midnight. And alcohol sales must end at 11 p.m..

In December, Tunney was slapped with $10,500 in fines for allowing regular customers to dine inside his Belmont restaurant, in Lake View, in defiance of state and city orders.

Tunney, Lightfoot’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee, acknowledged that he “made a mistake” and promised it would never happen again, but only after a blog devoted to police issues posted photographs of indoor dining at Ann Sather on Dec. 3.