Chicago and Suburban Indoor Dining on Track to Return Saturday

UPDATE: Added comments clarifying the Illinois Restaurant Association’s stance on mitigations.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has announced that Chicago and Suburban Cook County are on track to enter the next stage of COVID-19 mitigation rules as early as Saturday, paving the way for the return of indoor dining. If metrics hold, this means 10 out of 11 regions — as outlined in the state’s novel coronavirus response plan — will be approved to resume on-premise dining by the weekend.

During a Friday afternoon news conference, state health department Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said an announcement would be made Saturday on whether or not indoor dining would be restored. It’s not a forgone conclusion with Chicago at 7.6 percent COVID-19 positivity rate as of Friday. If that spikes over 8 percent, indoor dining’s return would be pushed to Tuesday at the earliest.

Bars without food still cannot serve customers indoors. In Chicago, the return of indoor dining means mask wearing, tables spaced apart, and either a 25-person or 25 percent maximum capacity (whichever is lesser) of customers, plus a limit of four people per table. Some restaurants have large windows or garage doors that allow 50 percent of a wall to be open, which permitted them to serve customers indoors even during the suspension of service. They’ve been doing this since October 30 when the state halted indoor service in Chicago, fearing the virus’s second wave. But winter’s freezing temperatures make this arrangement uncomfortable. Allowing dining with a wall sealed from the elements is more appealing in Chicago and other cold weather cities.

The inconsistent enforcement of the ban has frustrated restaurant owners. For example, in suburban Rosemont, owners tell Eater Chicago that city officials have told restaurants to ignore the state’s ban. Within Chicago limits, restaurants have papered up windows to stealthily continue service, despite warnings from health officials about the novel coronavirus’s spread.

Some owners have taken the advice from doctors seriously, going into hibernation or focusing on takeout options. This breaks ranks from the Illinois Restaurant Association, which has been pushing for the return of indoor dining as quickly as possible. It argues the financial strain is too much.

A spokesperson for the association says that it hasn’t disputed the science behind the state’s restrictions and that it’s pushing to reopen with “measured capacities” that could allow workers to be rehired while safely serving customers. Back in September — a month before indoor dining halted most recently — the restaurant association lobbied for officials to increase indoor capacity from 25 to 50 percent. Right now, the association says “Chicago is not close to opening indoor dining at 100 percent,” but adds that restaurants are capable of safely serving more than the 25 percent cap stipulated for regions in Tier 1.

While some restaurant owners long for the return of lucrative private events and larger parties, the Illinois Restaurant Association spokesperson says events and parties have never played a factor while advocating for its members during the pandemic.

Pritzker’s recovery plan, Restore Illinois, breaks the state down into 11 regions, placing Chicago in its own bubble in Region 11. Region 4 — which includes Bond, Clinton, Madison, Monroe, Randolph, St. Clair, and Washington counties — is the only region where indoor dining is still a ways off. That comes when the state promotes a region to Tier 1 of it plan. Region 4 just made it to Tier 2 on Friday.

State data from January 15 — excluding Chicago and Suburban Cook County — show 1,066 COVID-19 cases have been traced to restaurants. That’s out of 22,359 reported cases, or 4.8 percent. That ranks restaurants No. 8 on the list behind Business or Retail (2,807), Schools (2,248), and Hospitals or Clinics (2,191). Again, the exclusion of the state’s largest city and its suburbs skew the numbers. Grocery Stores rank right in front of Restaurants at 1,156 cases.

State and city officials have stressed two main metrics: positivity rate (the number of COVID-19 tests that return positive), and hospital bed vacancies. There’s a fear that treating COVID-19 patients will overload hospitals, preventing health care workers from helping patients with other illnesses. On Thursday, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady praised state-wide mitigations efforts which has put the city in position to restore indoor service.

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