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Chicago eases indoor dining restrictions

Indoor service will be allowed at either 40% capacity, or 50 people, whichever is lower, beginning immediately.

A few groups of people dine inside Mi Tierra’s near empty indoor dining space , Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.
A few groups of people dine inside Mi Tierra’s near empty indoor dining space last year.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago restaurants and bars fighting for survival after twice being forced to close their dining rooms got the go-ahead Tuesday to increase their indoor capacity to 40% or 50 people, whichever is less.

Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had kept capacity at 25%, but allowed restaurants and bars to serve 50 people “per room or floor,” whichever was less.

The Illinois Restaurant Association called it a “baby step.” The trade group representing a restaurant industry decimated by the coronavirus pandemic was hoping the mayor would raise indoor capacity to 40 or 50%.

To increase restaurant and bar capacity to 40%, Lightfoot said Chicago’s positivity rate must drop below 400 for three straight days. The positivity rate, emergency room visits and ICU bed occupancy already was in “moderate-risk” level and needed to remain so.

Now, all those metrics have been met, allowing the mayor to loosen her grip.

The rolling seven-day average of coronavirus cases now stands at 344. Chicago’s average test positivity rate is 3.6%, in the “low-risk” level. The rolling average of emergency room visits for “COVID-like illness” (62 per day) and intensive care beds occupied (117 per day) fall into the “moderate-risk” category.

“In recent days, we have made incredible progress in the ongoing effort to save lives and defeat this deadly virus,” Lightfoot was quoted as saying in a statement issued by City Hall.

“I am thrilled that we have made enough headway to cautiously ease more regulations. But, I once again want to remind all our businesses and residents that we are not out of the woods yet. Only by committing to what we know works will we be able to continue moving forward carefully and responsibly.”

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia was grateful for even a modest reprieve.

“Restaurants in Jefferson Park, Rogers Park, in Chatham, Bronzeville, Beverly and in Little Village on 26th Street. It’s gonna help those restaurants very, very much. They’re smaller restaurants with 100-people capacity and we were at 25 [%]. Now, they can go up to 40,” he said.

But, Toia pleaded with the mayor to loosen her iron-fisted grip even more.

“For the larger restaurants in our Central Business District, we would like to see going up to 100 people-per-room,” Toia said.

“Obviously, you have to have the social distancing. Team members and guests need to wear their masks. You’ve got to make sure the restaurant is cleaned and sanitized and everyone is following PPE guidelines.”

The Chicago Restaurants Coalition argued Lightfoot had no choice but to level the playing field after authorizing 40% capacity on Jan. 31 at Chicago retail stores, bowling alleys and movie theaters “where people eat and drink.”

“Not allowing restaurants at 40 percent capacity would have been downright discriminatory,” the group said in a statement.

Nancy Bruni, a partner at Formento’s Restaurant, 925 W. Randolph St., argued Lightfoot has “victimized” restaurants that are the lifeblood of Chicago neighborhoods.

“They keep calling us ‘partners.’ But we are not partners. We would have been partners if it was across-the-board, with other businesses closing with us,” Bruni said Tuesday.

Instead, she said consider places like Costco, Jewel or Mariano’s.

“I go in there at 6 o’clock in the morning. People are touching everything. Are they dis-infecting? No. Not as much as us. We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this equipment that we will not know what to do with once we open back up 100%.”

If the double-standard applied to the restaurant industry alone continues, Bruni warned Chicagoans will be “stuck with Chick-Fil-A and Burger King and McDonald’s for the rest of our lives ... because a lot of [independent restaurants] — I don’t know if they’re gonna come back.”

Even with 40% capacity, 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-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. Bars and restaurants must close at midnight. And the sale of alcohol must end at 11 p.m.

To boost capacity to 50%, all four metrics must be in the moderate-risk level for two straight weeks.

“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. … 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 here in Chicago,” Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said last week.

Last week, Toia complained Lightfoot’s go-slow approach was rewarding downtown restaurants with multiple rooms and penalizing neighborhood establishments with only one dining room.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather restaurants, was equally disappointed, noting that most independently-owned restaurants “don’t have that kind of capital to keep going.”