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Masks still on the menu? Faces must stay covered at Chicago bars, restaurants while city mulls final rules

“It’s just adding confusion to things for us,” manager Vanessa Cobbins said ahead of the lunch rush at MacArthur’s Restaurant in the Austin neighborhood. “We had problems trying to keep the masks on in the first place.”

A family enjoys dinner as an employee carries over a tray full of glasses in preparation for the dinner rush at Club Lago in River North on Friday.
A family enjoys dinner as an employee carries over a tray full of glasses in preparation for the dinner rush at Club Lago in River North on Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can safely gather maskless in most settings, indoors or out.

But will the immunized be allowed to ditch the masks inside Chicago bars and restaurants? Not quite yet.

City officials on Friday said they expect to “broadly follow” the CDC’s new bare-faced guidelines, but local officials are still ordering face coverings to stay on at establishments while they work out a new set of business regulations with the state.

That tenuous policy doesn’t make things any easier for restaurateurs that have already been put through the wringer for the last 14 months.

“It’s just adding confusion to things for us,” manager Vanessa Cobbins said ahead of the lunch rush at MacArthur’s Restaurant in the Austin neighborhood. “We had problems trying to keep the masks on in the first place.”

Establishments have been required to enforce the mask mandate for employees and patrons throughout most of the pandemic, at the risk of hefty fines. But without a uniform way to verify a person’s vaccination status, the new CDC guidelines all but throw out those local regulations.

Yet, a spokesman for the Chicago Department of Public Health said masks remain the status quo and stick around whenever regulations are loosened.

“We will work with the state and our industry and business partners to review and update guidance for specific settings, and expect to broadly follow this new CDC guidance across most settings,” spokesman Isaac Reichman said in an email.

“This does not, however, mean that masks are going away. We also agree with the CDC that masks should be worn during travel, including use of public transit, and that the unvaccinated should continue to wear masks in most settings.”

Representatives for the Illinois Department of Public Health did not respond to messages seeking comment.

At Club Lago in River North, co-owner Guido Nardini said he expects the city will soon lift the indoor mask mandate, and he’ll go along with it — even if he’s not completely comfortable with the idea.

“In my secret heart, I’d be relieved if masks were still required, but somebody above my pay grade is making that call,” Nardini said. “This is pretty novel and everyone is sort of flying by the seat of their pants.

“We have to trust that these are decisions coming from people who are trusting the science and that this is the right call. The thing I know is I can’t enforce something that the CDC doesn’t enforce.”

A family enjoys dinner at Club Lago in River North, Friday.
A family enjoys dinner at Club Lago in River North, Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

That leaves restaurants “in a tough spot,” he said.

“I will take people’s temperatures, I will prevent them from having more than six at a table, I will ensure social distancing in my shop — but I’m not gonna ask for people’s papers. I’d be terrified to stand on principle and let my customers go to my competition when we are not in the darkest days of this pandemic,” Nardini said.

New COVID-19 cases by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

Statewide, coronavirus metrics are at their lowest levels in two months. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 1,841 new cases of the disease were diagnosed among 83,624 tests, lowering the average positivity rate to 2.5%. Officials also reported 49 more deaths, including those of 14 Cook County residents.

With the latest 50,326 shots doled out Thursday, more than 60% of the state population have gotten at least one vaccine dose, and 37% are fully vaccinated.

Earlier this week, the city announced it wouldn’t count fully vaccinated patrons against capacity limits. But officials are leaving it up to bar and restaurant owners to come up with their own verification methods, only suggesting vaccination cards or an electronic or photocopy of it as examples of “acceptable methods.”

People dine on the sidewalk at Yellowtail Sushi Bar & Asian Kitchen last June.
People dine on the sidewalk at Yellowtail Sushi Bar & Asian Kitchen last June.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Pat Doerr, managing director of the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago, said his advice to operators is simple: “Just ask to see their card, whether it’s a picture on their phone or the actual card, and say, ‘Welcome.’ ”

Compared to the other trials owners have faced over the last year, “it is the most infinitesimal inconvenience we’ve been asked to deal with in months. And it’s optional,” Doerr said, noting that establishments can set their own rules.

Simple solution or not, “this weekend’s gonna be rough,” he said.

“All of us are completely confused as to what the rule is, so customers will be, too.”