Tide is turning against COVID-19, but bars and restaurants can’t expand capacity, city says

The city moved to Tier 1 last week, allowing bars and restaurants to seat customers indoors at the lesser of 25% capacity or 25 people per room. It’ll stay that way in Phase 4, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday.

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Drinks are poured last weekend at Corcoran’s Grill and Pub in the Old Town neighborhood, as suburban Cook County and Chicago moved back to Tier 1 to allows restaurants and bars to serve limited diners indoors.

Drinks are poured last weekend at Corcoran’s Grill and Pub in the Old Town neighborhood, as suburban Cook County and Chicago moved back to Tier 1 to allows restaurants and bars to serve limited diners indoors.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago is on pace to see some of its COVID-19 business restrictions lifted next week, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Friday she won’t allow the city’s freshly reopened bars and restaurants to expand capacity.

Chicago’s regional coronavirus testing positivity rate fell to 6.4% Friday; it was the first time it had been below 6.5% since Oct. 16. With two more days below that level, the city could shed Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Tier 1 mitigations and return Chicago to the fourth phase of reopening, as it was before a record-breaking resurgence in November.

The city moved to Tier 1 last week, allowing bars and restaurants to seat customers indoors at the lesser of 25% of capacity or 25 people per room.

Phase 4 rules allow local officials to “reassess” those capacity limits, but Lightfoot said the city will stick to the status quo at least until they see any potential impact from the Tier 1 reopening on Chicago’s improving infection numbers.

“I am optimistic that we will be able to increase capacity soon, but it would be irresponsible and dangerous to rush to reopen further and undo the incredible progress we have made as a city,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

The state’s Phase 4 rules also expand restaurant party sizes from a maximum of four up to 10. Chicago won’t go that far either, limiting groups to 6.

The city will also push closing time back from 11 p.m. to midnight, with alcohol service cut off at 11 p.m.

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said they’d his group will keep pushing to expand capacity as soon as possible.

“As one of the most highly regulated industries in terms of health and safety — and with enhanced precautions introduced during COVID-19 — Chicago restaurant operators know how to protect the wellbeing of their guests and team members,” Toia said in a statement. “They are confident they can safely serve more guests in Phase 4. The industry needs more to survive this crisis.”

While infection rates have fallen by about half in Chicago over the past month along with most of Illinois, officials noted the city is still logging an average of 660 new cases and 11 deaths per day. That’s well above the rates Chicago saw in the summer.

And while restaurants just started inviting customers back inside a week ago, it takes at least two weeks to see a potential spike in transmission, experts say.

“In recent weeks we have begun to turn the tide in the fight against COVID-19, and I thank all Chicagoans and especially our business community for their efforts to make this possible,”Chicago Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady said in a statement. “ ... The last thing we want is to cause a third wave of the virus by rushing to fully reopen riskier settings where masks are removed and people gather in close proximity.”

Indoor dining so far has been allowed to resume in all but one of the state’s 11 regions, with six regions — all outside the Chicago area —currently in Phase 4.

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