CORRECTION: Last call for bars is 11 p.m.
While many bars are trying to adapt during the pandemic by turning driveways into patios, serving frozen pizza to satisfy the city’s food requirement, or mixing to-go cocktails, it’s still an uphill battle for Chicago’s taverns. That’s why a group of bar owners and general managers from more than 50 bars have sent a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot demanding help.
Reps from places like Carol’s Pub, Cubby Bear, and Haymarket Pub & Brewery want the mayor to increase the maximum number of customers allowed inside bars from 25 percent; businesses are barely breaking even if they’re lucky under current policies. Indoor service is only allowed if bars sell food or partner with a restaurant or food truck to offer food. Currently, patio service is permitted without food service. Those who signed the letter also want to stay open until 1:30 a.m. During the pandemic, the city has mandated an 11 p.m. last call.
The letter, dated September 21, was coordinated by the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago, a consultancy for the city’s bars. Health experts are recommending the public to stay away from bars, saying hanging out inside bars is among the riskiest activities during the pandemic.
The letter acknowledges the risk and also states bars have earned the city’s trust in adhering to COVID-19 regulations and that city inspectors have “found very few substantive violations.” They contend they’re not asking for much from Lightfoot.
“The City’s taverns and restaurants need the same ground rules for occupancy and service the rest of the State of Illinois already operates under combined with a few additional hours to offer that service,” the letter reads.
The hospitality industry and its tributaries — including restaurants, nightclubs, bars, hotels, and concert venues — have been under siege since March. Various luminaries and trade groups have thrown out numbers estimating how many will survive. The numbers are merely projections, as the public remains unsure when scientists will be able to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. One true indicator is the jobs reports. The Chicago unemployment rate continues to drag with the rest of the country. A new report is due next week, but July’s showed the city at 12 percent, mostly driven by the leisure and hospitality sector. For comparison, the same period in 2019 showed 4.1 percent unemployment.
This group of bars wants Lightfoot to quickly act.
“Any further delay in modifying Chicago’s COVID hospitality industry guidelines simply wastes precious moderately good fall weather, limits the employment the industry can offer their staff, and further endangers the long term survival of a hospitality industry facing an extinction level event,” the letter reads.
There’s also added competition across the border from Indiana. Starting Saturday, September 26, the state will allow bars, restaurants, and nightclubs to fully reopen. Sporting events can also have fans in the Hoosier state.
One of Chicago’s most famous dive bars, Old Town Ale House, reopened on Wednesday. Normally, the bar — across the street from the well known Second City comedy club, could remain open until 4 a.m. on most days. Co-owner Bruce Elliott closed the bar in late July after the city ordered all bars that didn’t serve food to shutter following a spike in COVID-19 cases. Now, Old Town Ale House is back with frozen pizza, reports the Tribune. They may even add outdoor seating, although there’s not a lot of room around North Avenue and Wells Street.
There are minor renovations inside Old Town Ale House that were done after March when Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed all bars. The owners of Rossi’s Liquors in River North also performed work. They replaced the floors. They set up a to-go operation, encouraging customers to bring their drinks to the Chicago Riverwalk. Cocktails were placed in mason jars and a label with the bar’s license number was affixed. They were doing OK, but then the downtown bar was looted. But they’re back and want their loyal customers to stop by.
Mark Bires and Mindy Friedler signed the letter. They’re the husband-and-wife team behind Andersonville restaurant Fiya and Jerry’s Sandwiches in Lincoln Square.
“Our first priority is keeping staff and customers safe,” Friedler says. “But the reality is that we’re now staring in the face of winter, and there’s got to be some kind of movement or talk about what’s going to happen.”
Friedler likens seating strategy to a giant game of Tetris, trying to fit customers in under specific limitations. If the staff was allowed to serve at 50-percent capacity with social distancing, she says, customers could sit in the parts of the restaurant that are currently dormant, including a semi-private dining room.
“For us, smaller party sizes and social distancing is good, but [the guidelines] should be more based on distancing, not this arbitrary 25 percent,” she says. “And who knows where that number came from anyway?”
The following are the owners and general managers who signed the letter:
- Gloria Ortiz, El Jardin Restaurant
- Andrea Kardaras, Mom’s Place
- Rob Noha, Cell Block
- Javier Benitez, Augie’s
- Kelsey Kessler, Damen Tavern
- Justin Bobin, Buffalo Wings & Rings Bridgeport
- Jesse Boyle, Ovie Bar & Grill
- Ryan Marks and Eric Jenema, The Vig Chicago, The Whale, Welcome Back Tavern
- Peter Stark, O’Callaghan’s Pub
- Ken Gillie, Sculpture Hospitality
- Mark Bires and Mindy Fiedler, Jerry’s Sandwiches & Fiya
- John Neurauter, Haymarket Pub & Brewery
- Carlos Castellanos, Underbar Chicago
- Craig Morrall, Nisei Lounge
- Christopher Kim, San Soo Gab San
- Brett Polulak, Rick’s Cabaret
- Joe Shanahan, GMan Tavern and Metro Chicago
- Nick Kontalonis, Marquee Lounge
- Robert V Gomez, Subterranean
- Nick Loukas, Cubby Bear Lounge
- Lyn McKeaney and Steven Cin, Lodge Management Group
- Jonathan Donnelly, Lucky’s Sandwich Co., The Sandlot, Racine Plumbing Co, the Hidden Shamrock
- Jason Oldham, Raven’s
- Paul Cannella, Scarlet Bar
- Dino Vulpitta, Sterch’s
- Franklin Mylander, Frank’s
- Colin Distel, Last Call Tavern Group
- Jerry Mialback, Chicago Bar
- Tara Long, Fireplace Inn
- David Francioni, The Reveler
- Sean Miller, The Full Shilling
- Benn Hamm, Lincoln Station
- Ed Warm, Joe’s Bar and Carol’s Pub