Responding to the rising omicron variant, Chicago will join New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia in requiring vaccinations for restaurant and bar customers and workers, effective January 3. Hospitality employees will have an option to produce a negative COVID-19 test weekly if they aren’t vaccinated.
News of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s intentions leaked Monday night, and during a Tuesday, December 21 news conference the mayor revealed that those as young as age 5 will have to be fully vaccinated, and those 16 and older will have to produce a government ID along with their proof of vaccination. Lightfoot said the January 3 rollout is designed to give the service industry time to talk to workers and to prepare to comply.
The list of locations covers essentially everywhere “food and drink are served,” Lightfoot said. Gyms, bowling alleys, pool halls, theaters, concert venues, and sports arenas are included. The order includes weddings and other private events, Lightfoot added. Houses of worship, soup kitchens, and places where charity is the primary mission are exempt, as are Midway and O’Hare international airports. Restaurants and bars could face $2,000 to $10,000 in fines for noncompliance.
The city’s mandate asks for customers to be fully vaccinated following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s current definition: Two weeks after receiving a second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna jab, or two weeks after receiving the Johnson & Johnson shot. Chicago Health Department Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city will update the mandate if the CDC eventually decides “fully vaccinated” means receiving a booster shot.
Nationwide, the omicron variant represents about 73 percent of COVID-19 cases, and although a breakdown isn’t available, Arwady says she believes the number is higher in the Midwest. Omicron is three times as contagious as the delta variant, and while the vaccine won’t fully inoculate — no vaccine provides 100 percent protection — it does prevent strong protection against serious illness.
If a visitor is coming inside to pick up an order, make a delivery, or use a bathroom they’ll have 10 minutes before they’ll need to comply, said Ken Meyer, head of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP). Grabbing a quick coffee to go? No need to show a photo or a vaccine card, Lightfoot says, but if a customer plans on lingering with their laptop they’d better bring proof. Shoppers at grocery stores don’t need to show proof unless they sit down for a snack or drink at places that have food courts, bars, or other dine-in spaces. The 10-minute rule would apply to Chicago’s venerable hybrid liquor store bars (packaged good stores/slashies).
Lightfoot said the focus will be on getting business owners to comply rather than the customer, and added she expects enforcement to play out similarly to how BACP inspectors cracked down on capacity limits in the summer of 2020. The city points to a dire situation where the 7.3 percent positivity rate is the highest since vaccines became available earlier in 2021. The city said this reflects a huge jump from last week when the rate was 4.1 percent.
Since the summer, as the delta variant became dominant, restaurants and bars around the city have been instituting their own mandates. That decision amounted to owners feeling they had a social responsibility during a public health crisis, and that a vaccine requirement would be a boon to business, making customers feel safer.
“A lot of our restaurants and bars are asking us to do this,” Lightfoot told reporters.
There are also fiscal concerns, with some believing that vaccine mandates would cost restaurants and bars paying customers. It’s also possible that restaurants and bars will need to hire additional personnel to serve as “vaccine bouncers” — and finding workers has been a challenge for the hospitality industry during the pandemic. That type of thinking is baloney, says Pete Ternes, co-owner of Middle Brow Beer Co. Ternes says the customers at his Logan Square brewpub have reacted enthusiastically to the brewery’s volunteer vaccine requirement.
“Look, I don’t know what it’s like in Springfield or in Rockford or near the Iowa border where it’s possible a huge chunk of people aren’t vaccinated and restaurants could lose a huge chunk of money,” Ternes says. “But in Chicago’s environment, this absolutely won’t hurt anyone’s bottom line.”
Lightfoot’s camp has balked at a vaccine passport, which New York City instituted in August. Lightfoot’s camp maintained that a program like New York’s Excelsior Pass would never come to Chicago. The Illinois Restaurant Association has refrained from taking a position on a vaccine mandate, only strongly encouraging customers and workers to take their jabs.
Meanwhile, Ternes says he wishes the association was a stronger advocate for the mandate, as it would have helped to create a uniform playing field for restaurants throughout the state. Ternes understands that critics may argue that restaurants near suburban borders will be at a disadvantage, as those opposing vaccination mandates could elect to take their business to a neighboring town. The same scenario was suggested when Chicago restricted liquor sales in the spring.
One such suburb, Evanston, is home to Amy Morton’s Found and the Barn. Morton says the reaction has been quite positive at Found, which has had a vaccine requirement since November. While Chicago restaurants can be busy in December due to holiday gatherings, Evanston’s are notoriously quiet, Morton says, but this season her restaurant has been as busy as it’s ever been for the month. Morton says fewer people are leaving their homes to make trips downtown, preferring to spend a night in the suburbs. Having a vaccine requirement hasn’t negatively impacted her business.
Morton says her two other restaurants, the Barn and her newest, Stolp Island Social in Aurora, will require vaccines starting on January 2. Morton, who calls her staff “players,” studied theater. She compares the vaccine mandate to the advice one of her favorite teachers gave her. Even if there are critics, it’s important to follow common sense with handwashing, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated.
“You must play to the one smart person in the audience,” Morton says.