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Chicagoans Seated at Restaurants Will Have to Wear Masks Unless They’re Eating

The city will also allow bars to serve customers indoors even if they don’t serve food

A modern looking restaurant interior with seats and tables.
Restaurants, like Boqueria in Fulton Market, can increase capacities to 40 percent starting October 1.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago
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.

As fall and winter weather will soon make patio dining less reliable for struggling restaurant owners, the city of Chicago announced it will allow more people to dine indoors starting on Thursday, October 1. The city will raise indoor capacity from 25 percent to 40 percent, with a maximum of 50 people in a room. City officials say Chicago is trending in the right direction when it comes to key health metrics. That includes the number of COVID-19 cases, the burden on health care systems, and test positivity.

At a Monday afternoon press briefing, Mayor Lori Lightfoot also made several announcements that affect bars. Starting on Thursday, bars will be able to close at 1:30 a.m., with last call coming at 1 a.m. A group of bar owners sent a letter to Lightfoot two weeks ago asking the mayor to make that exact move.

The city will also ease restrictions for taverns that don’t serve food. Those bars were forbidden from indoor service. Several bars that fit into that category, including Old Town Ale House, have resorted to serving frozen pizzas to adhere to the city’s indoor bar service rule. Some instead converted parking lots, sidewalks, and driveways into patios. Most don’t have the space for a patio. Those bars remained closed, or they set up makeshift to-go cocktail operations.

But starting Thursday, bars without food licenses can offer indoor service with the same 25 percent capacity, or a maximum of 50 people. Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady preached cautiousness, saying if metrics remain stable in 28 days, the city would be in a position to increase indoor capacity to 50 percent. That would be in line with what New York is doing on November 1.

Still, some restaurant owners in Chicago remain angry about the six-person per table limit at restaurants. They say they want Chicago’s policy to match other cities in Illinois where restaurants can seat 10 per table. Arwady said the city was taking a gradual approach, again stressing health officials don’t want to undo restrictions too fast only to see regression.

Beyond the bar news, there are new rules for customers:

  • Customers will no longer be allowed get up and to order drinks at bars. Instead of walking up to a bartender, servers will have to take orders while patrons remain seated.
  • Bar and restaurant customers will also keep their facial coverings on at all time, unless — as Lightfoot said, they’re “actively eating or drinking.” Restaurant workers have lamented on how it is to remind customers how to properly wear masks, especially when patrons are drinking alcohol.

Arwady said the rules are needed as eating indoors makes people vulnerable without a mask. In a room of 50 people, there’s a 15 percent chance someone has COVID-19, even though they may not know it, she said.

“We have not figured out a way yet to eat through masks,” Arwady joked.

A paper that’s a contract tracing form.
Restaurant will now have to take down information for contract tracing.
Ashok Selvam/Eater Chicago

The increased capacity will help larger restaurants, like those in River North and West Loop. But going to 50 percent won’t be much of a boon for smaller restaurant that doesn’t have the room to properly space tables and seats six-feet apart. For smaller restaurants, Lightfoot touted Tock, the reservation portal co-founded by Alinea Group’s Nick Kokonas. Earlier this year, the mayor’s office lauded the company for pivoting toward becoming a platform for carryout and delivery and providing restaurants with a resource that could help them survive.

That pivot also positioned Tock as a competitor to third-party companies like Grubhub, with Tock marketing itself as a Chicago-bred company that didn’t charge 20-percent service fees to restaurants. In March, before Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed down indoor dining, Grubhub CEO Matt Maloney appeared at City Hall with Lightfoot saying the company would waive fees for restaurants during the start of the pandemic. Grubhub would later clarify saying it was only a temporary pause in fee collection.

That illuminated a series of frustrations between restaurants and third parties. Owners said the third parties were engaging in predatory practices. That led the city council to consider a service fee cap in April. Lightfoot warned that the city could still adopt a cap as winter approaches and food deliveries become more popular. Chicagoans are often reluctant to test icy roads. Tock will offer a trial subscription for restaurants. Incidentally, Grubhub’s Maloney is one of a group of investors in Tock.

There are two new other rules of note announced by Monday by Lightfoot:

  • Restaurant and bar owners must now take down email or phone contacts to enable contract tracing. Some already do this by handing out clipboards with questionnaires to customers.
  • Bar and brewery taproom owners also must ensure food is available for customers at all times. They could do that by making menus from other restaurants available so customers can order food delivery. They could also encourage customers to use third-party delivery services. Health experts worry that people that drink alcohol are more prone to ignore social distance rules.