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Chicago Reckons With Latest Indoor Dining Ban

Mayor Lori Lightfoot spars with Gov. J.B. Pritzker over the Chicago ban, as the governor halts indoor dining in Lake and McHenry counties

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot disagrees with Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

The Chicago service industry isn’t shocked over Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Tuesday announcement ordering the city to suspend indoor dining. Health experts have warned that COVID-19 cases have are surging locally and across the country.

But that doesn’t mean bar and restaurant owners are any less frustrated that on Friday they’ll have to close dining rooms for the first time since late June. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot provided a twist Tuesday night, when she said that she disagreed with the order and hoped to convince Pritzker to reverse course.

Over the last few months, Lightfoot has taken the lead in making pandemic-related announcements that would affect the city. But Tuesday marked a change with Pritzker delivering the bad news — a change Lightfoot disagreed with.

The mayor went on PBS NewsHour on Tuesday night, saying that she asked Pritzker to keep indoor service going in Chicago. Restaurants and bars were “really hanging by a thread,” she said, and she was “not sure that we’re reaching the right people with the restrictions that are going to be imposed by the state.”

“We’ve got to be very surgical in the way that we impose these new restrictions,” Lightfoot continued. “The truth is where we’re seeing the greatest challenges is in people’s homes, in social settings, that are not public — that’s harder to regulate to be sure.”

Pritzker’s office confirmed that Lightfoot had asked the governor to keep restaurants open, but he denied that request, according to WTTW’s Chicago Tonight’s Heather Cherone. On Wednesday, Pritzker defended his plan and also announced Lake and McHenry counties would ban indoor dining starting Saturday.

Tensions between Lightfoot and Pritzker’s teams have been building over the last few weeks. There’s even a report that the mayor missed a Monday phone call with the governor. The two sides disagree over what metrics are important when establishing policy. In Pritzker’s indoor dining announcement, he stressed that rising hospitalizations led him to make this decision. But Lightfoot says that there was only a “slight uptick” in hospitalizations, and that the increase wasn’t coming from ICUs, which treat the most severe cases of COVID-19.

“We’re going to continue our engagement with the governor and his team, but it’s not looking good,” Lightfoot said. “And if we can’t convince him that other metrics can apply, the shutdown will take effect on Friday by state order.”

Some viewed Lightfoot’s comments as grandstanding, and that she needed to take direct action to save restaurants, to help operators generate business and quickly. For example, Chicago could extend liquor sales from the current 9 p.m. cutoff to 11 p.m. That would match the closing time for outdoor service the the governor’s new order stipulates.

Meanwhile, restaurant owners are preparing for Friday’s closures. James Beard-nominated chef Brian Jupiter (Ina Mae Tavern, Frontier) tells TimeOut Chicago that he fears restaurants are being unfairly blamed and that lawmakers are ushering in the “the death of the restaurant industry in Chicago.”

The Illinois Restaurant Association has started a campaign with more than 3,000 members to fight the governor’s orders statewide. The lobby group calls for “enhanced financial support” with continued indoor dining. The city’s current restaurant guidelinesthat expire on Friday allow indoor dining with a 40 percent capacity.

There’s also an effort to get restaurants to defy the order, something that’s been done elsewhere in Illinois. A Republican activist who’s criticized Pritzker, a Democrat, in the past, has organized a private Facebook group for restaurant owners in Cook County who want to continue indoor service. Despite Pritzker’s threats that state police would be ready to revoke business licenses for restaurants the defy the mandate, the group is encouraging members to ignore instructions from health experts and to continue to serve customers indoors.

The group is also encouraging restaurants to take legal action, to ask the courts to rule the shutdowns violate the state constitution. The template was established earlier this year downstate, where attorney Tom DeVore — recently profiled in the Bellville News-Democrat — who has represented more than 100 clients (including two state representatives) who challenged Pritzker’s original order. DeVore hopes to find new clients after holding a Zoom meeting Wednesday morning.

Not all owners agree that the lawsuits could actually provide relief for businesses. After the court fees and time it would take for a ruling, it might be too late for restaurants willing to put up a legal fight.

Meanwhile, suspending indoor dining will put more emphasis on delivery. A city council ordinance that would cap what Grubhub, DoorDash, and Uber Eats charge restaurants remains floundering; the ordinance never made it out of committees. There have already been calls for council members to take action as owners have complained about predatory business behaviors by third parties.

Anne Gao, a co-founder of Quiao Lin Hot Pot in Pilsen, called the annoucement a “disaster.” She’s spending the next few days to strategize with her partners to develop a plan so her new Chinese restaurant can survive. That’s a situation familiar to many restaurant workers as the industry reckons with the latest restrictions.

  • State Public Health Officials Announce COVID-19 Resurgence Mitigations to Take Effect in Region 11 on October 30, 2020 [Illinois]
  • Chicago Halts Indoor Dining Once Again [ECHI]
  • Lightfoot: Chicago’s rising infections and falling revenues are of ‘great concern’ [PBS NewsHour]
  • Restaurants react to Chicago’s indoor dining ban [TimeOut Chicago]
  • This lawyer is fighting Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s coronavirus orders. Here’s why. [Belleville News-Democrat]