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Chicago Releases Fall and Winter Outdoor Dining Rules for Restaurants

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Restaurants will need placards warning diners about the increased risks of dining in an enclosed space

Chicago weathers winter advisory
Winter’s chill is upon us.
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 city of Chicago quietly released rules for fall and winter dining during the pandemic over the weekend. This includes guidance for tent or dome dining and how heaters will be implemented outside. The rules were released as restaurant lobbyists continue to battle City Hall to increase the maximum number of diners allowed indoors from 25 percent. They argue increased capacity is needed to avert restaurant closures and job losses.

Meanwhile, state health experts have also released a list of activities that they feel place the public most at risk for spreading COVID-19. Indoor dining and going to bars rank at the top of that list.

The fall and winter dining rules were released by the city’s buildings department. Enclosed temporary structures surrounding patios, for instance, could be used for multiple parties if they have “at least 50 percent of the sides open to allow air flow.” Structures for individual parties (like ones inside personal igloos) can also be used as long as they have proper ventilation. There are some limitations: For instance, because of fire regulations, a single tent can’t be used for cooking and dining at the same time.

The rules serve as another reminder of the chasm between downtown restaurants and their neighborhood siblings. The downtown establishments typically have more resources to afford COVID-19 survival essentials like patio furniture and permits and can draw on their savings to withstand slow business.

A chef at a major restaurant group was hopeful that the city will establish “yurt cities,” allowing the temporary structures, which are similar to teepees, to be placed in the middle of the roads as an extension of the city’s “Make Room” street dining program. Yurts were also one of the suggestions in the city’s winter dining design program. All temporary structures covering more than 400 square feet and up to 15 feet tall need building department permits from the city. The city appears to have learned from its rollout of patio dining permits, which prompted a deluge of applications. Getting the process started now, before the city’s salt trucks have warmed up for the season, makes sense.

But few neighborhood restaurants owners can afford to build these structures. Additionally, an Eater Chicago search for restaurants with private or enclosed patios owned by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) came up with few results beyond chef Brian Jupiter’s Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern in West Town and Wicker Park.

If restaurants can afford to build these enclosed spaces, they’ll need placards warning customers about the increased risk of contracting COVID-19. As lobbyists complain that “the media” is coming to an unreasonable conclusion over the safety of outdoor dining, a group of more than 140 doctors participated in a survey to assess 42 daily activities and the risks they pose to novel coronavirus exposure. Items on the list include working out at the gym, pumping gas, trick or treating, and hugging. The survey, administered by the Illinois State Medical Society and Illinois Medical Professionals Action Collaborative Team, used a five-point scale with “five” designating the riskiest activities. There were scores for participating while wearing a mask and using social distance and without those precautions.

Without safety precautions, attending an event with more than 50 people — like a concert or religious service — topped the list. Going to a bar ranked right behind at No. 2 in the upper echelon of the “high exposure risk” category. Eating inside a restaurant ranked in the same category, but was a little safer. The survey shows indoor dining ranks in the same high-exposure danger zone as traveling on an airplane, playing football or basketball, or sending kids to school or camp.

Wearing a mask along with observing social distancing drops going to a bar indoors into “medium exposure risk.” Eating at a restaurant with those requirements drop the activity into one tier below, to “lower exposure risk.” Critics will point out that while customers can take their own proper safety responsibilities, they can’t control the behaviors of others who can make situations more dangerous by wearing a mask below their noses.

The survey also concludes outdoor dining poses a medium threat without a mask and social distancing, and shrinks to very low with proper safety precautions. Eating takeout, with or without a mask and social distancing, ranks among the safest activities in the “very low exposure” category. News of the survey was first reported by PBS Chicago.

As Chicago restaurants purchase propane heaters and fire pits, the city also released regulations for heating device. Some of the city’s rules are simple: “outdoor spaces with heating devices must keep devices away from combustible materials, such as tents, at all times.” Restaurants will need fire extinguishers. If a wintry storm is too volatile, restaurants will need “inclement weather plans in writing and trained to staff to prevent any injuries in storms, snow, or other unsafe situations.”