On the first weekend after being given the green light for a return to limited indoor dining, restaurants in Chicago and Cook County had mixed reactions about taking that opportunity.
On Saturday, the state moved the city and the county toward Tier 1 mitigations after those COVID-19 regions had hit key benchmarks, such as having a positivity rate below 8% for three consecutive days. Will County is also currently in Tier 1, while Chicago-area suburbs in Lake, McHenry, DuPage and Kane remain under stricter Tier 2 guidelines.
Tier 1 status eases many restrictions for businesses, effectively opening bars and restaurants to offer some limited indoor dining, an option area businesses have not had since late October. Regulations now allow indoor dining at 25% capacity or 25 people maximum, whichever is less. Other limitations include keeping tables six feet apart, and limits of four patrons per table.
Bars are required to provide food during patrons’ stay. They’re to allow third-party food services or on-site delivery.
Just hours after Saturday’s announcement, many restaurants shifted quickly from takeout-only to accommodate in-person diners. Erick Williams, chef and owner at Virtue Restaurant & Bar in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, said pivoting from a takeout and delivery model to bringing staff back for indoor dining is a challenge.
“Every day in business right now is difficult — every single day,” Williams said. “There’s no clear-cut path to how we’re doing this. We’re figuring out every time we get closed down and reopen again.”
Virtue was one of the hundreds of Chicago restaurants that were ordered to close temporarily when the pandemic struck last March. Many shifted their focus to takeout and delivery, and some opened outdoor dining spaces over the summer.
In June, state and city officials eased restrictions and allowed indoor dining at limited capacities. In late October, responding to a surge in the pandemic, the city suspended indoor dining for a second time. The state followed suit a few days later.
At Anmol Barbeque in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood, manager Naseer Mohammed said, “People are a little scared, but we are doing everything — hygiene and cleaning — so everything will be OK, I hope.”
In north suburban Skokie, Pita Inn weekend manager Mohammad Munshar said the restaurant had been thriving with its takeout and delivery business and was able to sustain their entire staff throughout the pandemic.
Still, Munshar said in-person diners were a welcome sight Saturday, describing them as “very happy, sitting down, taking their masks off, eating, enjoying their meals. The music is playing in the background; it’s a good vibe.”
He said he and other workers are not worried about contracting the virus because they were wearing masks and following health guidelines.
Not all restaurants and bars have been so enthusiastic to reopen their indoor spaces to customers.
Many, like Hopleaf in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, which closed for the winter last November, have posted messages on social media explaining their rationale.
“While the pandemic rates are dropping, they are still high and there are new dangerous strains proliferating,” read Hopleaf’s Facebook post on Saturday.
For Parachute chef Beverly Kim, who also decided to keep indoor dining closed and continue with the restaurant’s takeout model, health concerns and logistics are intertwined. She said the restaurant, which is in Chicago’s Northwest Side Avondale neighborhood, has an intimate dining space that would make it difficult to accommodate both a takeout program and socially distanced indoor dining.
“I totally respect people who are ready to go back into it, but me personally, I’m just not … ready for it,” Kim said. “The takeout program is one way we can still service our guests and give jobs to our current employees with the minimal amount of risk.”
Kim said revenue at the restaurant has been down 75% since the pandemic struck. “Takeout is break-even on our best days, and if it’s an average day, we’re losing money.” But Kim — who lost her grandmother and a family friend to COVID-19 — said she is not comfortable risking her team’s well-being, adding that current takeout staff has become a COVID-19 “pod” of sorts.
“We know that everybody is doing their part in not gathering with other people or exposing themselves,” Kim said. “We feel a little bit more comfortable as a bubble to work with each other, and that minimizes the risks.”
Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist and cardiologist at Northwestern University School of Medicine, said despite the measures businesses may take to protect diners and staff, there are continued risks surrounding indoor dining. For example, contagious variants of the coronavirus — including one that originated in the United Kingdom — were detected by health officials in Chicago on Jan. 15.
“Even though our numbers right now may support trying to reopen restaurants and bars, I think that’s very dangerous,” Khan said. “We’re expecting to see the UK variant, or other more contagious variants, take over as the predominant cause of COVID in Chicago, and … it’s quite possible that reopening restaurants and bars may lead to a greater surge than we may already be facing.”
Khan added: “If we can focus all of our efforts on vaccinating, then we can potentially move forward and try to resume a more normal life, which I understand is what everybody wants.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk and WBEZ’s Education desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.