Chicago’s COVID-19 test positivity rate is at 8.2 percent. Health experts say 5 percent is a serious sign of risk and that’s added to the anxiety as tempers flare in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. The state’s indoor dining ban went into effect Friday morning in Chicago forcing restaurants and customers to deal with new regulations as lawmakers attempt to defend their decisions.
After Gov. J.B. Pritzker took the lead in making the announcement on Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot made her own declaration Thursday, pushing the business curfew for restaurants and bars from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Those venues now have an extra hour for outdoor service. Additionally, restaurants and bars can now sell alcoholic drinks to-go until 11 p.m. The cutoff time for sales at grocery and liquor stores remains at 9 p.m.
The state’s guidelines ban all indoor dining at bars and restaurants for an undetermined amount of time, and mandate reservations for outdoor seating. Gatherings must be limited to 25 people. Carryout and delivery can continue.
Restaurants owners across the city are dealing with the fallout. The Tribune spoke with eight restaurant owners, all white men with well-known restaurants — a group that included Tony Priolo (Piccolo Sogno), Kevin Hickey (Duck Inn), and Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill). They said they’ve wasted money spent on fancy ventilation systems aimed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 indoors.
Those frustrations are shared beyond the Tribune’s cohort. Over at modern Indian restaurant Rooh in West Loop, owner Manish Mallick says he’s “spent tens of thousands of dollars” on plexiglass, Environmental Protection Agency-certified cleaning chemicals, tents, patio plants, and air purifiers. He just purchased a hexadome tent from Amsterdam and will outfit it with infrared heaters. “It should be one of the best-looking tents in Chicago,” Mallick says.
Down the street from Rooh on Randolph, Anna Posey, the co-owner of playful Scandinavian-inspired Elske says she and husband David thought about spending money on igloos. But they had concerns about their safety. Instead, they’ve temporarily closed Elske until spring.
“It’s sad to see all these restaurants spend this money to stay open and to get shut down,” she says.
The cost of food is also an under-appreciated expense, Posey says. A restaurant could spend close to $20,000 on reopening, she says. While some of that food could be donated, restaurants are seeing significant losses.
Meanwhile, in recent state and city news releases, lawmakers made sure to mention government programs for funds, trying to entice restaurant owners to take advantage of funds. Those are small consolation prizes as federal aid has yet to materialize. At Bridgeport Korean-Polish restaurant Kimski, executive chef Won Kim says “it’s a no brainer” that money would help.
“There is only one fact and that is that we need as much assistance and help we can get,” Kim says. “We need straight-up money — not your bullshit $1,200 check that’ll keep us fed for six months — but actual money.”
Some diners are worried about how to handle prepaid reservations and refunds. Nick Kokonas, co-founder of reservation app Tock, responds via email that they’ve taken steps to ensure customers get their money back, but it’s up to each restaurant to establish their own policies and issue their own refunds. In March, with “literally tens of millions of dollars” in reservations that were cancelled due to COVID-19, all except about $9,000 was refunded by restaurants to customers. Tock covered that remaining amount, Kokonas writes. Tock has since added an additional layer of consumer protection: Money for prepaid bookings is now held in separate bank accounts. The money is only released until after a meal, Kokonas writes.
The indoor dining ban has restaurants exploring legal challenges and consulting with attorneys. It’s riskier for Chicago restaurants (versus smaller municipalities) to challenge the governor’s mandate. Chicago lawmakers have more authority over licenses for restaurants and bars within city borders. For example, the city could revoke a liquor license in the same manner it’s closed down establishments it feels are problematic. It’s a tried and true strategy aldermen have used to shut down bars.
On Thursday, Pritzker defended his methods and brought out Dr. Emily Landon, UChicago Medicine’s executive medical director for infection prevention and control. At a Thursday media briefing, Landon reiterated that restaurants and bars were more dangerous than, say, waiting in line at a store because customers have to remove their masks while eating and drinking. Pritzker called for the “clampdown” because numbers were going in the wrong direction.
Some are diminishing the relevance of current COVID-19 statistics, arguing hospital admission haven’t skyrocketed. That’s something Republican Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau and Lightfoot — a Democrat — have both said.
The Illinois Restaurant Association held a Friday morning news conference demanding Pritzker to restore limited indoor dining, and to take a “more reasonable and pragmatic approach.” President and CEO Sam Toia reiterated that the association does not support bad actors. “We want restaurants to comply with all necessary safety requirements,” he says.
Toia says restaurants are being unfairly singled out, and plans to meet with Pritzker’s office next week. The association did not announce plans to file its own lawsuit — several restaurant owners are calling for the association to file a class-action lawsuit. That could make it easier for restaurant owners to take legal action. Instead, the group is partnering with the National Restaurant Association’s law center to support any restaurants that file lawsuits. They’ll file amicus briefs in existing cases to help. Toia says restaurants “deserve their days in court” challenging executive orders that shut down indoor dining.
Paramount Events founder and CEO Jodi Fyfe spoke at the press briefing. Paramount, which caters private events, also had closed its West Loop restaurant, Eden, over the summer. She says at her company’s peak, she employed 536 people. Now Paramount employs 24.
“What the governor is doing is killing us,” she says. “He’s losing our jobs, we’re losing jobs, we can’t pay our rent, we can’t pay our mortgages, we can’t pay for health care.”
Seven restaurants in suburban Park Ridge are among the first to challenge the indoor mandate. The group — which includes Holt’s, Shakou, and the Original Pancake House —has filed for a temporary restraining order in hopes of stopping Pritzker’s order. A hearing is scheduled for Friday, according to a rep.
There are a few motivations for any challenge. One is political, as Republican supporters feel Democratic Gov. Pritzker has over-extended his executive powers. They feel the governor doesn’t have authority to shut their business down beyond an emergency period. Some of the criticism aimed at Pritzker, including comments on a private Facebook group that’s encouraged restaurants to keep their dining rooms open, is anti-Semitic in nature.
Two Chicago restaurants went public on social media with their desires to challenge the ban. On Friday morning, a worker at family-owned breakfast and brunch spot Bacon and Jam in Mount Greenwood said they’ll remain open for indoor dining this weekend. Red Barrel, a neighborhood restaurant in Archer Heights near Midway International Airport, also appeared prepared to openly violate the ban as of Tuesday. “It is with the utmost respect to our customers, staff, and family that we at Red Barrel Restaurant have made the decision to remain open for indoor dining at this time,” a Facebook post dated October 27 reads. “Red Barrel is a small local business that is family owned and operated. It is essential to the welfare of our hardworking staff and the survival of our business to remain open.”
Two days later, the post had attracted nearly 150 comments and was shared more than 100 times. That afternoon, however, the post was removed from the page, and no follow-up statement has since been issued. Reached by phone on Thursday, Red Barrel ownership declined an interview.