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Ban on indoor dining, drinking has driven partygoers underground, alderman says

A virtually deserted downtown Chicago in April, near the start of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. With bars and restaurants again closed to indoor service, and hotels offering cheap rooms to bring in desperately needed revenue, Ald. Brendan Reilly said many people are moving their parties from restaurants into those hotels, creating what he called “spreader events.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decision to close restaurants and bars to indoor patrons has driven partiers underground. A downtown alderman says they’re taking advantage of “cheap” rates at Chicago hotels and Airbnbs to hold parties with potential to become “super-spreader” events.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) sounded the alarm about underground parties outside the city’s regulatory reach during the final day of virtual City Council budget hearings.

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno was on the hot seat Tuesday. She has no control over Pritzker’s decision to close restaurants and bars to indoor patrons for the second time during the pandemic. The city can only get tougher than the state, not easier.

But Reilly seized the opportunity to unleash his anger about the Chicago party scene being driven underground.

“We are incentivizing the use of hotel rooms downtown for these big parties. Hotel rates are cheap. Lots of kids are coming down here and renting out these hotel rooms on the weekends. And these aren’t parties of five or six people. We’re talking 60, 70, 80 people. These are in licensed hotels,” Reilly said.

Reilly said he has talked to the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association about the problem.

“They’re great and so are their members,” but there are “a few hotels that have turned this into a business model,” he added.

“They are literally profiting off of the fact that bars and restaurants have been closed. Layer on top of that all of the Airbnb parties that are being thrown. Never mind the private residence parties being thrown. Huge groups. Totally unregulated. No masks. No distancing. Spreader events,” the alderman said.

“Bars and restaurants are being penalized for all of that bad behavior. … And shutting down a regulated industry that does a really good job enforcing the city’s and the state’s rules only is gonna grow the opportunity for these super-spreader events in hotels, Airbnb and private residences.”

Reilly asked Escareno what her inspectors can do to rein in private parties instead of asking “bars and restaurants” — the backbone of Chicago’s “imploding” hospitality industry — to “carry all of the weight of the COVID penalties while all of these other folks are getting away with murder.”

Escareno said she and top mayoral aides have had “conversations” with the hotel association to discuss the issue.

“We are working with the Police Department. And the Hotel Lodging Association has indicated to us that they are putting strong measures, security measures within their own hotels. It is really their job as operators of these establishments to ensure that they’re staffing up with security and preventing these issues from happening,” Escareno said.

“When we are learning of these things and they are put on our radar, our task force is going out to address these issues. So we’re on top of it as much as we can.”

As for the parties now being held at Airbnb’s, Escareno pointed to the “much stronger safety requirements” included in Chicago’s revised home-sharing/vacation rental ordinance.

“There are no more one-night rentals allowed in Chicago as of October. … There should never in a shared housing [unit] be more than two individuals per room and … a total of six [per] room max. So no more than twelve people in any shared housing unit,” Escareno said.

Michael Jacobson, president of the hotel association, said his members are doing all they can to rein in partygoers, but there’s only so much that they can do.

“We have to be very careful around discriminating in any way. If they’re above the age required to check in, we can’t say, `You carry certain tendencies that make us think you might party, so we’re not letting you check in,’ “ Jacobson said.

“If you call from a room and say, `There’s a loud noise next to me. I think there’s a party going on,’ the hotel immediately sends security up there to investigate and kick the people out if it is, indeed, a party. … I don’t think it’s happening as much as [Reilly] necessarily says. But it is happening, don’t get me wrong. And as soon as a hotel finds out about it, they kick out that party.”

Jacobson pointed to “instances of crime and violence outside” Chicago hotels as evidence of the security crackdown inside.

“Once we’ve evicted a group out of a hotel and put them on the street, there’s fights that happen in front of the hotel,” he said.

“Of course, the headline reads that violence has happened outside of that particular hotel. But that was a result of us actually kicking that group out. We can’t escort them home afterwards.”

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