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Chicago bars, restaurants officially cleared to reopen for indoor service: ‘It feels good to be back’

Restaurant and bar owners were able to invite customers back insider for limited indoor service Saturday for the first time in three months.

Deirdre Nestor, the general manager at Corcoran’s Grill and Pub in the Old Town neighborhood, prepares drinks Saturday. Suburban Cook County and Chicago moved back to Tier 1, which allows restaurants and bars to serve a limited number of diners indoors.
Deirdre Nestor, the general manager at Corcoran’s Grill and Pub in the Old Town neighborhood, prepares drinks Saturday. Suburban Cook County and Chicago moved back to Tier 1, which allows restaurants and bars to serve a limited number of diners indoors.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Restaurateurs across Chicago and Cook County breathed a sigh of relief Saturday as Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s health team officially allowed them to invite customers back inside for indoor service for the first time in over two months.

It was welcome news for many customers too, including Marcus Brezina, who, with his family, was among the first back through the doors at Corcoran’s Grill and Pub in Old Town.

“It feels good to be back inside,” Marcus said in the front dining room of the Irish pub. “The precautions are taken seriously and that’s what you want as a patron when you come in. They’re taking the right steps.”

And it took a lot of steps to get there. The governor shut down indoor service at restaurants statewide in November as coronavirus infection rates soared to unprecedented heights. But with most COVID-19 metrics back down to their lowest levels since October, Pritzker so far has put indoor service back on the menu for businesses in eight of of the state’s 11 regions.

Chicago and suburban Cook County improved to the state’s Tier 1 mitigation level, which allows restaurants and bars that serve food to seat customers indoors at the lesser of 25% capacity or 25 people per room. Bars that don’t serve food aren’t allowed to reopen in Chicago unless they partner with a restaurant to deliver on site.

That’s good news for a hospitality industry that’s been almost completely shut down for about half the pandemic.

“Obviously, 25 people is not a big number, but it’s a hell of a lot bigger than zero,” said Kevin Vaughan, who had to lay off employees at several of his six restaurants across the city. “We are absolutely excited to move forward... It allows people to put people back on the payroll. It’s a step we needed to take and we’re heading in the right direction and that’s the biggest thing for us.”

Staff serve a customer behind a plastic barrier at Valois Cafeteria in the Hyde Park neighborhood Saturday.
Staff serve a customer behind a plastic barrier at Valois Cafeteria in the Hyde Park neighborhood Saturday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Owners of Valois Restaurant said they feared the Hyde Park restaurant wouldn’t make it without the return of at least some indoor tabs.

“We’re trying to make ends meet, working for free and no profits and being in the red and just trying to stick around for our customers, our employees,” said longtime co-owner Gianni Colamussi, who said he went weeks without pay in order to keep the restaurant alive.

“I live in Indiana so things have been open for me, so when I come here, it’s a shock because things have been closed,” customer Lashel Norris said at the South Side diner. “I’m happy that everything is open and they seem like they’re being pretty safe with the spacing.”

Mercedes Norris, right, and Lashel Norris, center, eat at Valois Cafeteria in the Hyde Park neighborhood Saturday. Suburban Cook County and Chicago moved back to Tier 1, which allows restaurants and bars to serve limited numbers of diners indoors.
Mercedes Norris, right, and Lashel Norris, center, eat at Valois Cafeteria in the Hyde Park neighborhood Saturday. Suburban Cook County and Chicago moved back to Tier 1, which allows restaurants and bars to serve limited numbers of diners indoors.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As industry leaders and Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed the governor to bring back limited indoor service, Pritzker pointed to studies that have suggested bars and restaurants can be hot beds for viral transmissions. He also warned Friday that, with the more infectious UK variant of the virus detected in Chicago, restrictions could return “if we aren’t extremely careful.”

Colamussi and Vaughan said businesses are doing everything in their power to ensure indoor dining is here to stay.

“The risk of catching COVID in a restaurant or bar should be absolutely minimal because we’re taking all the right precautions and following the rules. We’re well ventilated and in compliance with the Tier 1 mitigation requirements,” Vaughan said.

Either way, Vaughan said, it’ll take years for the industry to recover from the fallout of the pandemic.

“It’s going to take a long time for the restaurant industry in the city of Chicago to bounce back for a number of reasons — business travel, tourism and conventions will be down dramatically and then people’s habits, of course, have changed dramatically over the last six months,” he said. “It’s going to take a while for us to get consumers confident in coming back into our restaurants and dining rooms, so it’s not going to be an immediate, short-term quick fix.”