Possible indoor vaccine mandate faces flak from city restaurant group

The plea against an indoor vaccine mandate is in response to a letter eight aldermen sent to the city health commissioner, urging her to require proof of vaccination for entrance to some gathering spots, such as restaurants, bars, gyms and theaters.

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Roger Romanelli, the Chicago Restaurants Coalition coordinator, at news conference on Jan. 12, 2021.

Chicago Restaurants Coalition coordinator Roger Romanelli, shown at a news conference earlier this year, said Monday that an indoor vaccine mandate would unfairly punish an already struggling restaurant industry.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Some Chicago restaurant owners are pushing back against calls to require proof of vaccination in public indoor settings, saying such a mandate would place an “undue burden” on an already crippled industry. 

The plea against an indoor mandate is in response to an early September letter in which eight aldermen urged Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady to require that customers show proof of a jab for some indoor gathering spots, such as restaurants, bars, gyms and theaters.

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“The responsibility for vaccination rates is squarely on the alderman and the mayor and not on small businesses,” Roger Romanelli, coordinator of the Chicago Restaurants Coalition, said at a Monday news conference. “We’re asking the eight misguided aldermen to withdraw their letter calling for restaurants to check their customers for vaccination papers and redouble their own efforts to end the COVID crisis.”

One owner said restaurants already have been hit too hard by the pandemic to take on a responsibility they say belongs to the city.

“If they really, really, really want to have this done, have the city hire and provide people who can work the doors and do this,” said Mary Kay Tuzi, owner of Twin Anchors Restaurant in Old Town. “The city needs to stop shirking its responsibility.”

coronavirus, restaurants, masks

Chicago restaurant owners say a mandate requiring staff to check customers’ vaccination status at the door would put an “undue burden” on already short-staffed restaurants.

Jeff Chiu/AP

Tuzi said the pandemic has cut her profit margin in half, and a recent increase in the minimum wage has increased her payroll costs. She said she doesn’t have enough employees to check the vaccination status of each patron who walks through the restaurant’s door.

“We’re a family restaurant. We’re not a nightclub; we’re not a bar,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling how the aldermen came up with this idea — let’s put the burden on the restaurants — when this is not something that we can handle.”

Romanelli said all partners of the Chicago Restaurant Coalition “fully support vaccinations for all Chicagoans,” but that pandemic shutdowns on indoor dining have crippled the industry. The coalition estimates 300 Chicago restaurants have shut their doors permanently since the pandemic began and is now calling on Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot to provide additional relief.

The Illinois Restaurant Association also says an indoor vaccine mandate would put a strain on smaller restaurants with limited resources.

“We strongly encourage all diners, staff, and visitors to get vaccinated as soon as possible - so that a vaccine passport for indoor dining is not necessary in Chicago,” said Sam Toia, the association’s president and CEO. “A one-size-fits-all mandate on vaccinations can be very difficult for smaller operations that don’t have the staff, training, and financial breathing room to start turning people away.”

Some restaurateurs are also worried that policing customers will lead to arguments and even physical altercations. Last week, a New York restaurant hostess was attacked by two out-of-state diners when she asked for proof of vaccination. New York and San Fransisco are among the cities that already require proof of vaccination for indoor diners.

“We all know this is a violent summer. It’s a violent city,” said Len DeFranco, owner of Hawkeye’s Bar and Grill on the Near West Side. “To ask, and it’s always a young person, to check IDs, and to ask for a vaccination card from everybody in a party, presents a little more danger than I want to give my people.”

But some Chicago restaurants and bars have chosen to require proof of vaccination to enter. Nikki Lopez, a bartender at Four Moon Tavern in Roscoe Village, said the pub’s vaccination requirement has made customers and staff feel more comfortable.

“I’d rather have to take the time to do that,” she said of checking customers’ vaccinations. “I like working in a place that does this, and I would have anxiety [if not]. I prefer it. I can vouch that most of the staff does here, too.”

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