Indoor dining is back in Chicago more than two months after Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office shuttered dining rooms due to a second wave of COVID-19. Dine-in service resumed Saturday as the city maintained a positivity rate below 8 percent for three days in a row — a required benchmark to move under the state’s novel coronavirus mitigation plan.
It’s a moment some local restaurant owners have being longing for since November, eager to resume some semblance of normal operations. Many Chicago operators, however, aren’t racing into a relaunch. They’re concerned about worker and customer safety, implementing appropriate staffing and procedures, all on top of a new coronavirus variant that’s already been detected locally.
Those fears are justified, Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist and cardiologist at Northwestern University School of Medicine, told WBEZ. “Even though our numbers right now may support trying to reopen restaurants and bars, I think that’s very dangerous,” she said. “We’re expecting to see the UK variant, or other more contagious variants, take over as the predominant cause of COVID in Chicago, and … it’s quite possible that reopening restaurants and bars may lead to a greater surge than we may already be facing.”
The new allowances do come with restrictions: no more than four people are allowed per indoor table (six are allowed outside), there’s a maximum of 25 percent capacity or 25 people per room, and masks and social distancing are still required.
Many prominent local chefs and owners threw their doors open as quickly as possible. James Beard Award-winner Rick Bayless reopened indoor dining at Frontera Grill, Bar Sotano, and Xoco in River North; Erick Williams, chef and owner of Virtue in Hyde Park, has also relaunched indoor service. Others have announced reopening plans but given themselves a little time to transition. After months of takeout — and even passing the time by selling burgers — Ever, chef Curtis Duffy will reopen his $5 million restaurant on February 16 in Fulton Market.
People are nervous, but high levels of hygiene and cleaning will hopefully put them at ease, Naseer Mohammed, manager of Anmol Barbecue in West Ridge told WBEZ. Still, others are worried about the impact a reopening would have on staff members who are most vulnerable to virus exposure by the public, and who have yet to be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations. They also voice fears of yet another round of reopening only to be shut down again by another spike in infections.
Michael Roper, whose venerable Andersonville beer bar Hopleaf remains closed, is among the operators erring on the side of caution. He explains his reasoning in a detailed Facebook post, noting the impact of distancing rules on the bar’s usually convivial atmosphere as well as the significant costs at play: “To turn everything back on, restart our insurance payments, restock, and rehire when we are so uncertain of safety, success and the chance of another spike, it may also be a financial mistake to reopen now at a time when we can’t afford one.”
Ownership at Long Room, a neighborhood beer haven in Irving Park, takes a similar approach, announcing on Instagram that “as much as we would love to welcome you back, we’ve made it this far so we are choosing to let this vaccine roll out, and continue to operate cautiously.” They’ve sold to-go cocktails and beer through the pandemic.
Reopening a restaurant is no simple matter — it’s an expensive endeavor fraught with unpredictable challenges. Given the difficulty of the task, the lighting speed at which some restaurants seem to have transitioned back to dine-in service with just a day’s notice has raised eyebrows among local owners. They suspect that some restaurants may have never have stopped indoor service at all.