Chicago Restaurants Can Start Expanding Indoor Dining Thursday

Chicago restaurants
Patrons enjoy lunch indoors Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, at Gibsons Italia restaurant in Chicago. Chicago is expanding indoor service ahead of Valentine's Day weekend as COVID-19 cases trend downward. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
Chicago restaurants
Patrons enjoy lunch indoors Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, at Gibsons Italia restaurant in Chicago. Chicago is expanding indoor service ahead of Valentine's Day weekend as COVID-19 cases trend downward. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Chicago Restaurants Can Start Expanding Indoor Dining Thursday

Restaurants can expand indoor dining capacity starting Thursday, Chicago officials announced, as the city pointed to positive downward trends in the COVID-19 metrics it follows to determine reopening plans.

The immediate change is small, allowing restaurants to increase indoor capacity to 50 people per floor or 25%, whichever is less. Previously, the limit was 25 people.

But if COVID-19 metrics continue to decline, capacity could expand to 40% in a matter of days and 50% within a few weeks.

The city will need to see three consecutive days with the average number of new cases below 400. As of Wednesday, that metric is at 466. The 7-day case positivity rate will need to remain below 6.5%, which was at 4.7% on Wednesday. The number of emergency department visits and occupied ICU beds will also factor in.

Bars, restaurants and events will still have to follow other restrictions put in place last year when the city reopened after the first stay-at-home order. Those restrictions include limiting groups to six people or fewer, spacing tables 6 feet apart, requiring masks and closing at midnight. Alcohol sales must end at 11 p.m.

Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s Commissioner of Public Health, said reopening needs to be done “smartly and safely.”

“While we’re excited to be making this move today and further reopening Chicago, it needs to be done the right way or we risk seeing an uptick in cases and having to tighten restrictions yet again,” Arwady said in a statement.

The restaurant industry has been devastated by the pandemic. Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said about 20% of restaurants will permanently close due to the pandemic.

“Today’s announcement comes at a critical time and is another step towards recovery,” Toia said in a statement. “Restaurants need this increase, as well as federal relief, more than ever.”

But the Chicago Restaurants Coalition blasted Mayor Lori Lightfoot for not increasing indoor dining capacity to 50% in time for Valentine’s Day weekend. The coalition said raising the cap from 25 people to 50 people does nothing to help the city’s more than 7,000 family-owned restaurants.

Restaurants and bars are highly regulated by the city. Since last March, the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection has conducted 8,450 investigations and cited 435 businesses for violating COVID-19 restrictions.

Becky Vevea covers city politics and COVID-19 vaccines for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.