Lightfoot easing Chicago restrictions on indoor bars, restaurants, fitness class sizes - Chicago Tribune

4 weeks ago 23

All summer long, Chicagoans were told to stay outside, socially distance themselves and wear masks to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, with Mayor Lori Lightfoot playing the stern disciplinarian making sure everyone complied.

Now, with the cold months bearing down on the city, Lightfoot is loosening the pandemic rules to welcome more people to get together inside bars and other businesses.

The science shows it’s an appropriate move, Lightfoot argued Monday in announcing bars that don’t serve food can reopen for indoor drinking and restaurants, gyms and other retailers can up their capacity.

The changes are Lightfoot’s latest attempt to ease the financial burden on Chicago businesses by lifting frequently criticized restrictions.

But they also come as the city prepares for flu season and the number of new COVID-19 cases per day hovers around 300, well above the 200-case threshold the mayor set months ago as a goal before moderating restrictions.

Andrew Marinelli cleans the bar as the staff prepares for dinner service in the rooftop canopy area of Roots Handmade Pizza in the South Loop on Sept. 28, 2020.

Andrew Marinelli cleans the bar as the staff prepares for dinner service in the rooftop canopy area of Roots Handmade Pizza in the South Loop on Sept. 28, 2020. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

On Monday, the mayor defended the decision. She eased up on the no-nonsense pose she has struck over the past several months of frequently scolding residents for falling short in meeting the safety standards to instead applaud the collective effort she said makes it possible to now let more Chicagoans safely gather together inside.

“Over the past six months, we’ve had to make difficult decisions, as you all know, all of which were rooted in what we were seeing in our city’s COVID-19 data,” Lightfoot said. “Asking residents and workers and businesses to make a lot of sacrifices in the name of public safety and public health.

“And people have risen to the occasion all over the city. It’s because of this citywide cooperation and collaboration that Chicago never saw a huge surge in cases once we started to gently reopen.”

Lightfoot has been eager to showcase Chicago as America’s most open big city during the pandemic, while also pledging to heed scientific advice on how much leeway to give businesses and other public places where people congregate.

While the inside sits empty, Bob Hook, left, and Holly King drink and dine outside the Jarvis Square Tavern in the Rogers Park neighborhood on Sept. 28, 2020, in Chicago.

While the inside sits empty, Bob Hook, left, and Holly King drink and dine outside the Jarvis Square Tavern in the Rogers Park neighborhood on Sept. 28, 2020, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

Eldridge Williams, co-owner of The Delta restaurant and cocktail bar in Wicker Park, expressed cautious optimism at the latest news, saying he’ll examine how to become more creative with seating. But maintaining 6 feet between tables will still restrict the number of people he can fit in a cozy dining room that’s about 1,500 square feet.

“I’m not sure how much this will help us in terms of the bottom line, but it’s better than deducting the amount of people we can have in,” said Williams, who reopened just a month ago.

Ultimately, he said, the looser restrictions are heartening.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Williams said.

Some restaurants still remain wary of allowing people to dine inside.

Leyla Khanahmad, co-owner of Black & Caspian in Lakeview, said while the new relaxed restrictions are great, she’s still concentrating her efforts on outdoor dining. She’s concerned that allowing more patrons in her dining room raises the risk of her staff being infected.

“We are still cautious of the number of people indoors because we also have employees of our own,” she said. “If they can keep outdoor patios for the winter, if they can allow that, that would be great. It’s a lot more safe like that. We can serve more people in a much safer way.”

Monday’s announcement keeps the city in phase four of its reopening framework but moderates several standards.

Starting Thursday, the city will allow shaves, facials and other personal services that previously were banned because they required the removal of face masks, but said they need to take no longer than 15 minutes.

The city also will increase the maximum group size for health and fitness classes and after-school programming from 10 to 15 people, officials said.

This is the second time during the pandemic that the mayor has let bars that don’t serve food welcome patrons inside. But they will be limited to whichever is fewer between 25% of capacity or a maximum 50 people, under the new rules.

Server Mimi Valkova waits on a table at Roots Handmade Pizza in the South Loop on Sept. 28, 2020.

Server Mimi Valkova waits on a table at Roots Handmade Pizza in the South Loop on Sept. 28, 2020. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

These establishments have drawn particular focus from the city as spots where the coronavirus spreads, with Lightfoot repeatedly saying lower inhibitions as patrons drink can cause them to become lax about maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.

Bars were allowed to serve some people inside when the city moved to phase four of its reopening framework in late June when new cases were around 167 per day. But in mid-July, as virus cases spiked to around 233 per day, Lightfoot rolled that back and restricted those taverns to outdoors only.

As of Monday, Chicago’s average daily case count for the past week sat at 299, according to the city’s coronavirus dashboard website, a 28% increase over the number at which the mayor opted to close taverns to inside service and put other stricter rules in place two months ago.

But Chicago public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady noted the city saw weekly increases in cases for weeks from late June until Aug. 24 but has now seen more than four weeks of decreases. The city will continue to monitor the data for possible increases, she said.

Lightfoot acknowledged there are “risks” with her latest orders but cast the measures as “foundational” to Chicago’s economy.

“We still have a long way ahead on our recovery journey,” she said.

Cory Rolon disinfects tables outside R Public House in the Rogers Park neighborhood on Sept. 28, 2020 in Chicago.

Cory Rolon disinfects tables outside R Public House in the Rogers Park neighborhood on Sept. 28, 2020 in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

With Chicago weather getting dodgier deeper into autumn, the city’s hundreds of bar operators have been clamoring to again open their doors to drinkers, arguing the distinction between those businesses that serve food and those that don’t is in many cases not relevant.

According to Lightfoot’s plan, Chicago won’t move on to phase five until there’s a coronavirus vaccine. But she left herself a lot of room to continue to “turn up the dimmer switch” on a return to normal within phase four.

Although Lightfoot is easing some rules, the city will still require patrons to wear face masks “except when actively eating or drinking.” They also will be required to order from their seats at indoor bars and taverns.

Places serving alcohol also must partner with a food establishment so that people can order food at all times, Lightfoot said. That means making menus available and allowing delivery, including from third-party app services.

Bars and restaurants also will be required to keep a phone or email “for possible contact tracing,” the city said.

The Illinois Restaurant Association praised Lightfoot’s announcement, as did the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago.

Scott Weiner, co-owner of The Fifty/50 restaurant group and an Illinois Restaurant Association executive board member, said the relaxed restrictions will greatly benefit bars and restaurants, and hopes that if the low positivity rate is maintained, that the capacity of 50 people indoors can be raised in the coming weeks.

“This is important, this is definitely a positive step in the right direction and this is going to help a lot of neighborhood restaurants,” Weiner said. “I’m hoping that if we can maintain the mayor’s trust and prove that we are doing things right, hopefully within the next couple weeks we can see the maximum room size increased as well. That’s ultimately what’s going to make the biggest difference between success and failure for a lot of places out there.”

Increased hours of operation make a big difference, he said, but he wished this news came a month earlier, when the weather was warm and patrons still wanted to dine outdoors. Limiting capacity to a 50-person maximum within one room will be challenging for larger restaurants come colder weather. The new South Loop location of his restaurant Roots Homemade Pizza, for example, has expensive mortgage and real estate taxes, he said, so capping dining rooms at 50 people makes it impossible to pay the bills.

And Pat Odon, manager of Nisei Lounge in Wrigleyville, praised the move allowing bars to serve alcohol until 1 a.m., instead of 11 p.m.

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“That’s huge,” Odon said. “That’s a whole extra turn of customers.”

Still, others raised different concerns.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates characterized Lightfoot’s announcement as a capitulation to the city’s business committee that will jeopardize in-person learning at schools.

“Like, how do you lower daily #Covid cases & high positivity rates by opening *everything* ahead of the #FallSurge?” Davis Gates tweeted.

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