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Suburban bars, restaurants asked to take voluntary steps to combat COVID-19 surge: ‘In the carrot stage, not the stick’

Bars, taverns and other places that serve alcohol without a retail food license are being asked to discontinue indoor service. Fitness classes in suburban Cook County are being urged to go from 50 people to 10.

Bill Luby, center, 54, laughs with his friend, Calvin Grant, 53, both from Evanston, as they eat and drink together on the patio at Bluestone, 1932 Central St. in Evanston in May.
Bill Luby, center, 54, laughs with his friend, Calvin Grant, 53, both from Evanston, as they eat and drink together on the patio at Bluestone, 1932 Central St. in Evanston in May.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Looking to crack down on a surge in coronavirus cases among young people in the suburbs, Cook County officials announced Monday they’re urging restaurants to seat fewer diners at each table and bars to only serve customers outdoors.

Fitness centers in suburban Cook County are also being asked to reduce the number of people in the classes they hold from 50 to 10.

“We’re really asking the public to really get on the bandwagon with this,” said Dr. Rachel Rubin, a co-leader of the county’s Department of Public Health.

“These are not major changes, I understand that it does hurt some establishments or business owners, and we certainly regret that. The important news is that we really want to stop the spread of the virus or at least slow it down.”

The voluntary guidelines came as Illinois recorded another 1,298 coronavirus cases across the state on Monday, the 13th day in a row with a four-digit daily caseload.

The new infections pushed the state’s seven-day positivity rate just past 4% — up sharply from 2.6% a month ago.

The situation is worse in suburban Cook County, where the 10-day positivity rate shot up to 5.8% as of last Friday.

That rising positivity rate, especially among those who are between 18 and 29, prompted the revised suburban restrictions, Rubin said.

Restaurants and bars that serve food in the county’s suburbs are being asked to cap groups of diners at 6 people, down from ten.

Emily Cribbin, a server at Poor Phil’s in Oak Park sanitizes a table for a customer in May.
Emily Cribbin, a server at Poor Phil’s in Oak Park sanitizes a table for a customer in May.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

And bars, breweries, taverns and other places that serve alcohol without a retail food license are being asked to discontinue indoor service and only serve patrons outside.

“We want everybody to be wearing a mask and social distancing and washing your hands and be careful when you go out to the bars — and just do it outside,” Rubin said.

Fitness classes offered in suburban Cook County should be reduced from 50 people to 10, Rubin said.

Though the recommendations are “basically voluntary” Rubin said she hopes “most individuals will want to follow that guidance and understand why we’re doing this now.”

“Right now, we’re sort of in the carrot stage, not the stick,” Rubin said. “We really want people to get on board with this and to see that now is the time to decrease some of our openings and put mild restrictions in place for now on a voluntary basis.”

One industry leader said he expects businesses to follow the guidelines to head off more drastic steps.

Restaurant and bar owners who’ve seen the “devastating” effect of the pandemic on their industry don’t want to go backward, said Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

General manager Juan Becerril, 35, of Chicago, dispenses hand sanitizer to customers preparing to eat lunch on the patio at Flat Top Grill in Evanston in May.
General manager Juan Becerril, 35, of Chicago, dispenses hand sanitizer to customers preparing to eat lunch on the patio at Flat Top Grill in Evanston in May.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file.

“We don’t want to go back into shelter in place,” Toia said. “We would rather take precautionary measures in small steps now than go back into shelter in place.”

Daniel Clausner, the executive director of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, said in a statement that his organization is encouraging all members to “adhere to state and local policies.”

But he urged officials to treat bars the same as restaurants.

“Bars, restaurants, taverns, and other similarly situated businesses are all tasked with enforcing the challenges of maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, sanitation procedures, etc,” Clausner said. “The ILBA recommends to policymakers that all similarly situated businesses operate equally on a level playing field.”

A handful of customers eat in the dining room at Siam Rice, 117 N. Wells St., in mid-March.
A handful of customers eat in the dining room at Siam Rice, 117 N. Wells St., in mid-March.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Across Illinois, the state on Monday also logged another nine deaths – four of them in Cook County — bringing the total number of those killed by the virus to 7,526. Altogether, 183,241 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in Illinois since the pandemic gripped the state.

The state has seen a steady uptick in new cases in July, rivaling numbers not seen since May and early June.

Monday’s numbers pushed the state’s seven-day average positivity rate to 4.01% — the first time since early June that the rate was over 4%. Monday’s single-day statewide positivity rate of 4.56% was the highest since June 6.

Over the past week, Illinois has averaged 1,512 new cases a day. The last time the state averaged that many cases over a seven-day span was at the end of the peak month of May.

The latest numbers were released about an hour after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a new campaign urging people to wear masks. The slogan of the series of ads that will air on television, Hulu and YouTube, is “It only works if you wear it.”

The ad campaign comes as the state is seeing “some very concerning trends” in new coronavirus cases, linked to overcrowded restaurants and an overall rise among those in their late teens and early 20s.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during a news conference in Little Village last year.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during a news conference in Little Village last week.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

“Folks, no one is asking you to wear a mask forever, but for the time being, until we see a very effective treatment or a vaccine, the best way to safely get to the other side of this emergency is for all of us to follow the mitigations recommended by doctors — wash your hands, watch your distance, wear a mask whenever you’re out and about,” the governor said in Springfield.

Contributing: Caroline Hurley