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Even Without a Mandate, Chicago Restaurant Workers Take Extra COVID-19 Precautions

Industry workers are wearing face masks, handing out gloves, and more to protect customers and staff during the pandemic

Chef Philip Foss of El Ideas in Douglas Park preps a to-go meal.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker told his constituents to start wearing masks or use cloth coverings over their mouths when venturing outside of their homes, particularly in potentially congested areas like grocery stores. The move came after the CDC changed its stance, asking people to wear masks in certain public settings. Restaurant and grocery owners haven’t received direct guidance from the government on what they should do; but many industry members in Chicago have taken to wearing masks and covering their noses and mouths in aisles and kitchens.

Face coverings are one of the many safety precautions instituted at Rick Bayless’s restaurants, a spokesperson confirmed. Management at that acclaimed Mexican restaurant group has also applied a tighter hand-washing schedule and is paying more attention to disinfecting surface and swapping out gloves (Xoco, Frontera Grill, Cruz Blanca/Leña Brava are open for carryout and delivery). In a letter Bayless sent out to workers last week, the chef wrote he’s proud of the measures taken, especially because he believes restaurants can play a positive societal role through this crisis: “One bite is enough to lighten spirits.”

At the same time, Bayless knows this is serious, writing to workers: “I don’t want to put anyone at any risk greater than what all of us experience when going to the grocery store or pharmacy.”

A customers prepares to put on plastic gloves, while a worker at Fresh Farms grocery store looks on.
Ashok Selvam/Eater Chicago

Workers are implementing safety measures at grocery stores across the country. Some have taped floors to show customers how far folks should stand from one another in line. Over at Fresh Farms in West Ridge, a man wearing a mask stood at the door and directed customers to a box of plastic gloves, instructing them to put on a pair before entering. While not mandating gloves, the city of Chicago has directed grocery stores to put up signs to advise customers of the six-foot rule, recalling social distancing rules.

The CDC has not found any link that food is a source of transmission of COVID-19, reminded Dr. Atul Gupta, medical director of infection of prevention at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lennox. Though there aren’t official guidelines, Gupta said he’s glad to hear people are using masks to prevent the spread of the disease.

“Food handlers should follow stringent precautions of frequent hand washing and cleaning of surfaces while preparing food,” Gupta says. “The virus could potentially be transmitted on the surface of food packaging, so keeping these surfaces clean and free of contamination is important.”

Not wearing a mask is a privilege that some restaurant workers — particularly Asians who were racially vilified for spreading the disease — don’t have. The week before St. Patrick’s Day, at Te’Amo Boba Cafe (on the fourth floor of the Shops of North Bridge off Michigan Avenue), workers wore plastic protective shields in front of their faces. They were the only stall with workers on the fourth-floor food court to be wearing them.

One reason to wear masks was to escape judgements or bigoted questions from customers. But it’s also part of the culture abroad, points out Richard Kim. Kim runs the Wicker Park location of Tour Les Jours, the Korean bakery chain that sells French pastries. Kim pointed out that Americans aren’t used to seeing masks unless they’re in California where air pollution in LA and the Bay Area is a larger problem. He’s been wearing a mask for a while at his Division Street store.

A worker a Khan BBQ on Devon wears a mask in the restaurant’s kitchen.
A worker a Khan BBQ on Devon wears a mask in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Ashok Selvam/Eater Chicago

Food delivery is another area of concern, one that’s growing as restaurants have closed dining rooms. Earlier on Monday, chef David Chang (Momofuku, Ugly Delicious) and Alinea Group’s CEO Nick Kokonas tweeted about how the government needs to better enforce safety regulations on the delivery sector. Grubhub and DoorDash have both made big deals about their efforts to get masks to its delivery fleet; Grubhub has an online form so drivers can request equipment. DoorDash, which also owns upscale delivery service Caviar, announced it has 2 million masks which it plans on distributing to couriers.

Incidentally, a spokesperson for Bayless said his restaurants recently attained ServSafe COVID-19 accreditation. Many Illinois restaurant workers are legally mandated to take a safety course, like ServSafe. Delivery drivers don’t face such requirements. When it comes to masks, ServSafe has not made a recommendation. It’s following the CDC’s findings, that doctors have yet to find a link between transmission of the disease and food.

Leña Brava

900 West Randolph Street, , IL 60607 (312) 733-1975 Visit Website

Cruz Blanca

904 West Randolph Street, , IL 60607 (312) 733-1975 Visit Website

Frontera Grill

445 North Clark Street, , IL 60654 (312) 661-1434 Visit Website

XOCO

1471 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622 Visit Website

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