Just when it seems like the pandemic is turning a corner, a new COVID-19 variant emerges. Last summer, it was delta, which brought the mask mandate back to Chicago. Now it’s omicron, which was identified just before Thanksgiving and has since made its first appearance in the city.
This puts Chicagoans in a bind. It’s winter, which means it’s a tough time for socializing or eating outside. Already this week, several restaurants, including Arami (still open for takeout), AO Bistro, Steingold’s of Chicago, and the newly opened Moonflower, have had to shut down temporarily because staff members or significant others of staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. Should we keep drinking and dining in bars and restaurants? Here are the latest numbers and recommendations.
How much is omicron spreading?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that delta is still the primary COVID-19 variant circulating in the U.S., which makes sense since omicron landed in the U.S. only three weeks ago. Scientists suspect that omicron is more contagious than the original strain of COVID-19 or delta, but there still needs to be more research to determine how severe it is, and how well it can be mitigated by the vaccines (it’s hard to tell now because most Americans who have it are still going through it).
The total number of COVID-19 cases, meanwhile, has risen sharply in the past month, both nationally and locally, though the available data does not distinguish between variants. As of Wednesday, the current daily average number of cases in Chicago, according to city data, is 969, nearly double that of a month ago. The current daily average number of hospitalizations is 61, twice what it was last month, but far below the peak of 169 in April 2020. The average daily number of deaths hovers around 7.
Won’t vaccinations protect me?
Vaccines have been shown to reduce the severity of COVID-19 cases, and the death rate has decreased dramatically since people began getting vaccinated. Nearly 80 percent of the population of Chicago has had at least one vaccination shot (73.9 percent are fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been at least two weeks since their second shot). But there are still breakthrough cases, and it’s possible for asymptomatic people to pass it along. The CDC recommends that everyone get a booster six months after the second shot. While there are breakthrough cases, something that’s common with vaccines, research shows that the shots decrease the chance of severe illness and hospitalization.
But restaurants have safety measures, don’t they?
There are no universal vaccination requirements in Chicago. City officials are considering making proof of vaccination a requirement for entering public places, like in San Francisco, New York, and LA. Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner, has said that she she thinks a vaccine passport is definitely preferable to another shutdown. But for now, vaccination requirements are at the discretion of individual restaurant owners. Here is a list of restaurants and bars that require proof of vaccination at the door.
So is it safe to dine indoors?
Indoor dining is back in Chicago, and it’s unlikely to go away again. And this winter, unlike last, we have vaccines. However, CDC still considers indoor dining a precarious activity for unvaccinated people. Even if you are vaccinated, eating out is risky in areas with a high rate of community transmission, like Cook County. The current rule in Illinois is that everyone over the age of 2 is required to keep a mask on indoors — except while eating and drinking (which is exactly what people do at bars and restaurants; and most don’t replace their masks in between bites or sips). But obviously a crowded bar is a much different environment than, say, a restaurant with widely spaced tables. Without any official guidance, though, and with no one knowing for sure what the impact of omicron is going to be, ultimately, it’s up to diners to decide how much risk they’re willing to take on.