Send it back to the chef? Lightfoot wants Pritzker to rethink looming Chicago restaurant crackdown

“We can’t ignore what is happening all around us, because without action, this could look worse than anything that we saw last spring,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said.

SHARE Send it back to the chef? Lightfoot wants Pritzker to rethink looming Chicago restaurant crackdown
Outdoor dining tables sit empty at Gibsons Bar & Stakehouse at 1028 N. Rush St. Tuesday afternoon as colder temperatures provide a new challenge for restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Outdoor dining tables sit empty at Gibsons Bar & Stakehouse at 1028 N. Rush St. Tuesday afternoon as colder temperatures provide a new challenge for restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Four months after reopening from the first devastating coronavirus shutdown, Chicago restaurateurs will be forced to close their dining rooms again beginning Friday as COVID-19 infections soar to spring-like highs statewide.

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot indicated she’d push Gov. J.B. Pritzker to reconsider his latest restrictions on indoor dining, the Democratic governor said skyrocketing case counts and testing positivity rates mean businesses and residents have to buckle down now with a potentially troubling winter looming.

“For a time, late in the summer, Chicago seemed to have this more under control than other regions of Illinois, but that’s no longer the case,” Pritzker said while announcing the restaurant rollback Tuesday. “We can’t ignore what is happening all around us, because without action, this could look worse than anything that we saw last spring.”

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But Lightfoot, who announced last call for indoor bar service as the city’s coronavirus numbers shot up last week, criticized Pritzker’s new restrictions, saying she’s not sure they’re “reaching the right people.”

“If the governor’s order goes into effect, it’s really effectively shutting down a significant portion of our economy at a time when those same businesses are really hanging on by a thread,” Lightfoot said on PBS NewsHour. “So we’re going to continue our engagement of the governor of his team, but it’s not looking good. And if we can’t convince them that some other metrics, should apply, then the shutdown unfortunately is going to take effect.

“The truth is that where we’re seeing the greatest challenges is in people’s homes, in social-sector settings that are not public. That’s harder to regulate,” Lightfoot said.

Pritzker first shut down restaurant seating in March before outdoor seating resumed near the beginning of June and indoor service was allowed toward the end of that month.

The new closure couldn’t come at a worse time as cold temperatures arrive, according to Reinier Nayor, owner of Sazón Cubano at 5422 W. Fullerton Ave. in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood.

“We aren’t getting help anymore, so another shutdown means a lot of places may close for good. I hope I’m not one of them,” Nayor said.

Reinier Nayor, owner of Sazón Cubano at 5422 W. Fullerton Ave., worries about what another ban of indoor dining will do to his restaurant. 

Reinier Nayor, owner of Sazón Cubano at 5422 W. Fullerton Ave., worries about what another ban of indoor dining will do to his restaurant.

Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

That group could eventually include more than 7,500 restaurants statewide, according to Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia, who said he raised his estimate to almost a third of the industry that could be sunk in part due to the governor’s “extreme” measures.

“Why the full shutdown? At least let us try 25% capacity,” Toia said. “We know how to do this right — masking, social distancing and sanitizing. Any business doing it right should be kept open, and any one that isn’t should be shut down. We don’t understand why the restaurants are the only ones affected.”

The rules issued by Pritzker, who has cited studies suggesting bars and restaurants are “super spreading” sites, also mean other city gatherings will be limited to 25 people or 25% of room capacity.

The Democratic governor noted Chicago is averaging twice as many COVID-19 hospital admissions per day compared to a month ago, while its average seven-day testing positivity rate has almost doubled since the beginning of October.

That number is at 7.8%, just shy of the 8% threshold set by the governor’s office that has more often triggered such state “mitigations” in other regions. But Chicago has weathered eight consecutive days of positivity increases and a full week of rising hospital admissions — the same metrics tripped a day earlier by the suburban Cook County region, where indoor restrictions go into effect Wednesday.

Tom Hunter, 62, of Rogers Park, drinks coffee on the patio at Starbucks at 5300 N. Clark St. in Andersonville as it lightly rains Tuesday afternoon.

Tom Hunter, 62, of Rogers Park, drinks coffee on the patio at Starbucks at 5300 N. Clark St. in Andersonville as it lightly rains Tuesday afternoon.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

By the end of the week, reopenings will have been scaled back in seven of the state’s 11 regions, and the remaining regions — all at 7% positivity and rising — aren’t far behind.

“We are well into this second wave, and I assure you that this is a virus affecting all of Illinois,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city’s rate of increase is now the same as the first wave of coronavirus cases earlier this year, with new cases doubling every nine days. That means in nine days, the city could be 1,600 new cases a day, actually topping the first surge.

“This is going to be a difficult winter for everybody,” Arwady said. “The more that we can be serious about COVID and think about how we can support each other and support small businesses through this winter is going to be crucial.”

Statewide, most key COVID-19 metrics have deteriorated to the worst points seen in almost five months. The Illinois Department of Public Health on Tuesday announced 4,000 more people tested positive for the virus, which claimed an additional 46 lives. The death toll has risen to 9,568 since March.

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The statewide average testing positivity rate is at 6.4%, the highest it’s been since early June. Hospitals are treating the most coronavirus patients they’ve seen since then, too, with 2,758 beds taken up as of Monday night.

The virus has killed an average of 42 Illinoisans per day over the last week, double the death rate this time last month. About 73 Illinoisans were dying with COVID-19 per day over the first week of June, but experts say rising fatalities lag behind rising hospital admissions — and so they’re expected to mount in the weeks ahead.

“The reality is we’re all trying very hard to get this right, all across the country,” a frustrated Pritzker told a reporter questioning some of his decisions. “Can you not see that COVID is rising everywhere? Let’s not try and find the loopholes here and there, but instead find ways that we can promote safety and health.”

Customers eat indoors at A Taste of Heaven, 5401 N. Clark St. in Andersonville, as it lightly rains Tuesday afternoon.

Customers eat indoors at A Taste of Heaven, 5401 N. Clark St. in Andersonville, as it lightly rains Tuesday afternoon.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

One encouraging sign is that Chicago has “not yet seen a surge in deaths,” Arwady said, though she does expect “some increases.” Still, she added, we have “learned a lot about how to care for” patients with COVID-19.

The city on Tuesday also added Florida to its travel quarantine order, though Illinois is actually adding cases at a faster clip than that state. Residents and travelers are now required to self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival in Chicago from 31 states and Puerto Rico.

Arwady said the scope of that map means “traveling is a concern” around the holidays. She’s not going anywhere, she said, and she urged others to “think seriously about whether this is the year for travel.”

Since March, about 7.4 million coronavirus tests have been administered in Illinois and at least 382,985 residents have carried the virus, or about 3% of the population.

Contributing: Manny Ramos

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