More Than 400 Bars Could Close As Chicago Begins New COVID-19 Rules

People outside a Wrigleyville bar
Chicago is banning bars that don’t have patios or food service to prevent more scenes like this in Wrigleyville in March: people not wearing masks, waiting to get into a packed bar. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
People outside a Wrigleyville bar
Chicago is banning bars that don’t have patios or food service to prevent more scenes like this in Wrigleyville in March: people not wearing masks, waiting to get into a packed bar. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

More Than 400 Bars Could Close As Chicago Begins New COVID-19 Rules

After just one month back at her job, Karissa Talanian is getting ready to reapply for unemployment benefits.

She’s a bartender at the famed Logan Square dive, Cole’s Bar, one of 450 similar spots across Chicago that will be shut down by the city when new COVID-19 restrictions go into effect Friday.

The rules, announced Monday, say any bars that don’t serve food can’t seat people indoors. So, bars without patios don’t have many options beyond pick-up orders.

Talanian, who’s worked at Cole’s for more than five years, said she doesn’t get how serving food makes much of a difference when it comes to COVID-19 risk, or why bars like hers that have been following guidelines are now being punished for others’ bad behavior. She recalled seeing “hundreds” of unmasked people drinking outside a bar on Milwaukee Avenue in Bucktown.

“There’s no accountability for them,” she said. “I wish there was just some sort of a merit system.”

Some bar owners said they’re being scapegoated just weeks after they reopened when the city eased coronavirus restrictions. They brought back employees who had gone on unemployment, and spent money on personal protection equipment like face masks and plexiglass barriers.

Chicago’s new restrictions affecting hundreds of bars come as unemployed people are about to lose an extra $600 weekly payment they’ve been getting from the federal government during the pandemic. That extra payment expires this weekend.

For people like Talanian who had returned to work and now face going back on unemployment — and receiving lower benefits — that means dipping into savings to get by.

“All the workers and small business owners have just been pawns in this horrible system,” she said. “It’s just a horrible experiment that failed for the government.”

Bar-goers blamed for rising virus cases

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said closing bars like Cole’s is necessary to keep the city from taking “a very large step backward” in reducing COVID-19 cases.

She told reporters this week that bars are a high-risk environment, because people are standing around indoors and removing their masks to drink. Also, because indoor bars are often noisy, people are speaking louder, which can send respiratory droplets flying.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot partly blamed the city’s recent COVID-19 uptick on young people crowding bars. Officials said people aged 18 to 29 make up 30% of all new coronavirus cases in Chicago. The city is now averaging 212 new cases a day.

Austin Harvey co-owns Beermiscuous, a craft beer spot in Lakeview. He said it’s unfair to blame the city’s surge of cases on indoor drinking places like his, and he called the latest regulations “poorly aimed” and “unnecessarily punitive.”

“The places that I’ve seen with large crowds or people hanging out of windows — they’ve all been places that serve food” he said. “Shutting down a few hundred bars when restaurants and bars with patios are still allowed to remain open — I’m not sure how that is going to fix things.”

Harvey said his business will likely survive for now thanks to federal Paycheck Protection Program assistance that he was able to get. But he’s not sure how other businesses will make it.

At least one bar isn’t going to try to weather the storm: Wrigleyville-staple Guthrie’s Tavern, which announced on Monday it’s closing permanently.

“With the new restrictions set today for bars and the ongoing COVID restrictions, we don’t see a way we can survive,” the bar wrote on Facebook.

Victoria Fadden owns Taylor Street Tap in Little Italy and said her family will rely on dwindling savings while indoor bars are closed. Fadden said she had worked diligently to enforce social distancing in her bar.

“You don’t know how you’re going to survive — that’s the scary part,” she said. “You don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent or feed your kids.”

Vivian McCall is a news intern at WBEZ. Follow her @MVivianMcCall.

Correction: This story has been updated to give the correct neighborhood location of Cole’s Bar.