The prospect of throwing paying customers out of his Logan Square bar and restaurant during Monday night’s Chicago Bears game has Park & Field’s Dave Nalezny frustrated. But that’s the scenario bars will face on Monday night — at least those showing football — as the city’s new COVID-19 rules have gone into effect. Bars and restaurants will have to end indoor service at 10 p.m. Carryout food service can continue later into the night.
The Bears game starts at 7:15 p.m., and Monday night games can last four hours. Park & Field is normally closed on Monday, but would open for specially scheduled Bears game; sports bars are made for these situations. Park & Field serves food, so they’re able to remain open. Under the city’s new rules, bars that don’t serve food aren’t allowed to serve customers indoors.
But for Nalezny, an earlier closing time on Monday isn’t good for customer service or employee morale.
“You can come for the first half and go home?” he says. “We’re not going to open for that.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says if the rules work and COVID-19 metrics decline, the new “business curfew” — which closes non-essential businesses from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. — will expire on November 6, or two weeks from Friday. But earlier in the week, there was worry about stricter rules including an altogether ban on indoor service like what Gov. J.B. Pritzker instituted in March. Most restaurant owners feel harsher regulations are on the way. Chicago Public Health Department Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said on Thursday that a ban would happen if the city’s seven-day rolling positivity rate of COVID-19 cases hits 8 percent. On Friday, it was 6.7 percent and rising.
Nalezny says he’s been supportive of Lightfoot and Arwady’s safety measures. He and his staff, at times, have had to deal with customers who don’t want to wear masks, folks from states like Wisconsin that have looser rules: “Do you know how many people I have to fight on a daily basis?” he says.
That’s the type of frustration that the entire a state is dealing with, Illinois Health Department head Dr. Ngozi Ezike reminded listeners on Friday afternoon during the governor’s coronavirus briefing. Ezike had to step away from the podium in the middle of her comments. Like many across America, Ezike was briefly overwhelmed by COVID fatigue.
Until Thursday, Nalezny says he saw the logic behind the city’s mandates, including curbing capacities and social distancing. But Nalezny and other restaurant owners don’t understand what changed in the time between Monday — when Lightfoot said bars and restaurants weren’t responsible for the recent uptick in virus cases and hospitalizations — and now. Three days later and Lightfoot and company sound like they’ve flip-flopped, leaving bar owners a mere day to prepare to implement the rules.
In the effort to explain the need for restrictions, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx says there has been a rapid change in behavior over the last three to four weeks. Birx spoke Thursday at a news conference following meeting with the heads of several of Chicago’s top hospitals.
“What has happened in the last three to four weeks is that people have moved their social gatherings indoors,” Birx said, according to the Tribune.
But even before Thursday’s announcement, there’s been talk among restaurant and bar owners that the implementation of the city’s rules are more political, that leadership is after the lowest COVID-19 rate in the state like it’s some sort of trophy. On Thursday, Arwady mentioned that Chicago had a low rate, but that a “7-percent positivity is nothing to brag about.”
Following Lightfoot’s Thursday briefing, Pritzker continued the spotlight on bars. During his own briefing, he said state police was ready to impose stiff penalties on scofflaws which threatened to denied the governor’s indoor dining ban that affects four suburban counties in cities like Naperville, Joliet, and Aurora.
Bar owners, like Nalezny, say inspectors should make examples out of violators instead of showing leniency. The process should also be more transparent; the city should name names. Nalezny says Park & Field has been inspected 10 times by the city since the pandemic and Chicago police make weekly visits. Nalezny says his bar is safer than at a football home watch party as private residences aren’t regulated. The Illinois Restaurant Association’s Sam Toia echoes Nalezny, telling WGN Radio that people are more likely to catch COVID-19 at a friend’s basement versus at a restaurant.
State and local officials have shared news stories as support for the restrictions. Arwady mentioned a theory among health experts that bars are more dangerous compared to restaurant because people speak louder at taverns. That means a greater chance or aerosol spread. Arwady and Lightfoot also mentioned a May study that referred to a Hong Kong concert series where musicians spread the virus to a cluster of bars.
Lightfoot also referred to a super-spreader event in August, a birthday party at an unidentified Chicago bar. Apparently more than 100 were at this event where patrons mingled between tables to spread the disease. Bar owners pointed out that parties that large aren’t allowed under the rules: “So you’re going to make them double illegal now?” Nalezny says.
The rule changes have bar and restaurant owners making adjustments on the fly. Chicago’s famed Alinea is beginning an extended stay inside the Ace Hotel Chicago in Fulton Market. The space makes it easier to social distance compared to the restaurant in Lincoln Park. Alinea Group’s Nick Kokonas says the city’s new rules have forced his company to switch their plans. He tweeted about how the rules will affect restaurants, writing that the 10 p.m. closing date is more devastating than reducing dining capacity. Restaurants will lose out an entire seating.
Dive bars, like Innertown Pub, have found ways to stay open. The Ukrainian Village tavern converted a driveway to a patio and acquired a food license to stay open. The food license is the reason the Surge Billiards, a new pool hall in Logan Square, can continue to operate.
Nalezny was animated Friday morning, but didn’t want to cast Lightfoot or Pritzker as villains. Without federal assistance, he just wants a little more support from local government. If he can’t serve customers on premises after 10 p.m., it would be nice for the city to enact limit on third-party delivery fees, a measure that the city council has let flounder in committees. Nalezny says he’s mostly worried about keeping his 40 workers employed.