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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Says Indoor Dining is ‘Very Close’ to Returning

Lightfoot cited the threat of underground parties, and wants to bring recreation from “out of the shadows”

A steakhouse’s exterior during the day with boarded-up windows.
Gene & Georgetti is one of the many restaurants that would like indoor dining to resume.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday morning that the return of indoor dining is “very close,” but city officials need to make sure Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s staff is onboard. The mayor’s remarks come as Pritzker is poised to lift some COVID-19 restrictions on Friday for the entire state. The governor has said those potential actions exclude the resumption of indoor dining, but it’s a move in the right direction.

Lightfoot sees a pressing need to restore indoor dining due to the threat of unregulated private parties where hosts ignore mask mandates and social distance rules.

“I am very, very focused on getting our restaurants reopened,” Lightfoot said during a Thursday morning media briefing. “If we look at the various criteria that the state has set, we are meeting most if not all of those, so that’s a conversation that I will have with the governor, but I want to get our restaurants and our bars reopened as quickly as possible.”

Pritzker’s office told WTTW Chicago’s Heather Cherone that he’s happy to meet with Lightfoot’s staff, but right now Chicago’s COVID-19 numbers don’t meet the threshold needed to resume indoor dining.

Many restaurant owners would agree with Lightfoot’s comments and have told Eater Chicago that they’re frustrated because they feel they’ve met safety measures and it’s time to reopen dining rooms. Shortly after the mayor’s news conference concluded, the Illinois Restaurant Association issued a news release calling for the immediate restoration of indoor dining. The lobby group claims that at 75 days and counting, that Illinois has suspended indoor dining longer than any other state.

Indoor dining, which was allowed at a 25 percent maximum capacity, halted on October 30 in Chicago. The city has followed the lead of state officials who cited increased hospitalizations and a fear that higher spikes would come during the holidays. Last week, Pritzker said Illinois avoided a surge, especially compared to how COVID-19 rates increased in other parts of the country. State officials are waiting for data from New Year’s Eve to see if end-of-year parties led to a larger spread. Friday represents a full 15-day incubation period from January 1.

Underground indoor parties have been a problem — both at residences and at restaurants. City inspectors have crashed these events, finding maskless attendees drinking and socializing behind curtained windows and in basements. The city made examples of two parties in Wicker Park. Back in November, Chicago Ald. (42nd Ward) Brendan Reilly blasted parties hosted at Airbnb properties. Lightfoot said allowing indoor dining would allow residents to have some fun and would “bring it out of the shadows.”

“And what we’ve seen since the restaurants were closed down is a couple of things. One is people going into private spaces, whether it’s hotel rooms, whether it’s underground venues, and having these parties with no masks and putting themselves more at risk,” Lightfoot said. “If we have people and give them an outlet for entertainment in the restaurant space, in the bar space, we have much more of an opportunity in my view to be able to regulate and control that environment.”

As another round of the federal Payment Protection Plan (PPP) began this week, the mayor didn’t mention the financial benefit of resuming indoor service. But that’s also motivation for the illicit gatherings — restaurants are also hosting gathering events as a cash grab. Lan’s of Old Town received blowback after video captured a crowded party inside the restaurant. The owners apologized, saying they’ve been desperate for revenue during the pandemic. There’s also the case of Richard’s Bar, the infamous dive in River West that proudly put up a sign that they were defying state regulations. That reaction was more political, as the owners have a disdain for elected officials.

Chicago currently has a seven-day positivity rate (the percentage of COVID-19 tests that trigger a positive result) of 10 percent, according to the city’s COVID-19 Dashboard. That’s a decrease from the week prior, which saw a rate of 10.6 percent.