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Chicago Restaurants See a Void in COVID-19 Safety Guidance

Alinea Group’s Nick Kokonas wants city, state, and federal governments to outline strict guidelines

A sign telling folks to wear face masks to avoid getting sick.
Despite signage, several customers still need help in following proper safety protocols.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

As Chicago restaurants and bars reopen for restricted outdoor service and prepare to relaunch indoor dining — now slated for July 1 — owners are hammering out strategies to protect their staff and customers, both physically and legally. Some establishments are leveraging reservation apps as an intermediary between workers and diners to ask questions about a customer’s health and travel. The city and state have released safety guidelines, but they’re being ignored in some areas.

Alinea Group co-owner Nick Kokonas is concerned and says there’s not enough governmental guidance surrounding how to operate if an employee is stricken with COVID-19.

In a Twitter thread Tuesday, Kokonas reveals that two employees at different Alinea restaurants reported positive tests in early June and explains how the company reacted. Every worker who shared a shift with them was voluntarily tested and confirmed negative. That’s good news for everybody, but testing staff for these two incidents alone cost the group around $8,000, according to Kokonas. He anticipates more costs for contact tracing once dine-in service resumes.

Kokonas lays out how current protocols for restaurants that have an employee who tests positive for the virus ultimately incentivize ignoring the issue or simply closing down. Kokonas believes customers who miss restaurants will sign anything that will allow them to eat at dining rooms. He says novel coronavirus testing is the only effective way to protect safety.

“It is not sustainable to shut down operations every time an employee is sick or suspected of having COVID,” he writes on Twitter. “With limited capacity, the cost of testing employees exceeds the profits from being open... the resulting requirements of quarantines/testing make it impossible to run a business. So businesses will either ignore or close again.”

Kelly Cheng, of family-owned James Beard Award winner Sun Wah BBQ in Uptown, is also working to prep her restaurant for potential health and legal challenges. Ownership will require diners to provide contact information and sign a health declaration form affirming that they haven’t exhibited COVID-19 symptoms and they haven’t had the virus in the past 14 days, according to WBEZ. She was inspired by Hong Kong restaurant group Black Sheep’s widely-shared coronavirus handbook.

Cheng understands that some may be concerned about privacy, and has included a stipulation that signed forms will be destroyed in 60 days. Though she anticipates some discomfort with the procedure, at least initially, she hopes that diners will see that it’s designed to help them in case of exposure at the restaurant.

Chicago’s restaurants could open on July 1 for indoor dining at limited capacity. The city has yet to release guidelines. The Illinois Restaurant Association recently released a safety pledge for restaurants to help ease concerns for diners venturing out during the pandemic, but a common restaurant owner complaint is that government is leaving them to interpret the laws themselves without guidance.

Kokonas hopes his tweets reassures customers instead of frightening them. At the same time, he writes that he sees “other restaurants in the city where outdoor spacing is too tight, employees are not wearing PPE, patrons of lining up at doors, etc.” After months of financial losses, he says some operators are willing to stay open at all costs, and the current protocols prompt them to skip testing to keep revenue flowing.

Alinea

1723 North Halsted Street, , IL 60614 Visit Website

Sun Wah BBQ

5039 North Broadway, , IL 60640 (773) 769-1254 Visit Website

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