UPDATE: During a Wednesday news conference, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city would loosen restrictions on Thursday, allowing restaurants to serve a maximum of 50 per room. The 25 percent capacity limit remains in place. The headline has been updated reflecting the mayor’s announcement. Revised story follows.
Starting Thursday, some Chicago restaurants may soon be able to seat more customers indoors, in time for Valentine’s Day — one of their busiest days of the year. The city will continue to enforce the 25 percent capacity cap for indoor dining, but will loosen the maximum number of customers allowed per room, according to the Sun-Times. That number on Thursday will increase from 25 people to 50.
Chicago Health Department Commissioner Allison Arwady added that an increase to a 50 percent capacity is on the horizon if positivity rates and other metrics continue to decrease.
Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia describes the 50-person cap as a “baby step.” Toia has maintained that restaurants should be able to serve more indoor diners than what the state and city has allowed during the pandemic.
The news comes as a slight shift in approach for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who in early February said it would be irresponsible to allow too many patrons back inside restaurants too quickly. She’s made repeated likened indoor dining restoration to a “dimmer switch,” attempting to illustrate a gradual expansion in capacity.
The city and state haven’t prioritized clarity in their announcements. In January, many restaurant owners questioned how Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health would announce the restoration of indoor dining. The health department informed the public via a tweet made on a Saturday morning.
There’s also been confusion when it comes to this announcement, as it’s meant to be a lifeline for larger restaurants. The capacity limit will remain at 25 percent for the foreseeable future, but if a restaurant — Toia uses Gene & Georgetti as an example — can still abide by that percentage and host up to 50 customers per room, they will be able to do so. The River North steakhouse has four rooms, so in theory, Toia says the restaurant could serve 200 customers.
The announcement likely comes as a partial victory for a coalition of restaurants that earlier this week held a virtual press conference demanding the city to expand capacity to 50 percent before Valentine’s Day. Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by the coalition reportedly show that since June 2020 that 22 restaurants have closed for non-compliance with the city’s pandemic rules and less than 300 restaurant employees tested positive for the virus.
About two weeks have passed since dine-in service resumed in Chicago, and the Chicago Restaurant Coalition (not to be confused with the Chicago Hospitality Coalition) points to a drop in the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate as evidence that it’s safe to bring more customers inside. Chicago currently has a seven-day positivity rate of 4.7 percent.
When it comes to stats, something to note for context is the new deal with Chicago’s Teachers Union to reopen Chicago Public Schools. As reported by Chalkbeat Chicago, while bargaining in December, the teachers union asked for a 3 percent positivity rate threshold to reopen schools. In the agreement, CPS countered with a complex stat that triggers fully remote learning when the city’s positivity rate increases seven days in a row, with each daily rate spiking at least 15 percent more than the week previous, and if the rate on the seventh day is 10 percent or higher.
And in other news...
— Replay Lincoln Park is back with another socially distant pop-up that debuts Friday. Schitt Happens is a tribute to the Canadian sitcom mega-hit Schitt’s Creek with food, drink, replicas including Moira’s wig wall and the Rosebud Motel, and a retail section modeled after Rose Apothecary. A Café Tropical-themed menu offers cocktails and items like Moira’s Ahn-chiladas (with folded-in cheese), Lovebird Wings, and Rosebud Cinnamon Buns. The pop-up is 21-and-over; masking and social distancing will be enforced. Reserve a spot via Tock.
— Lots of changes are underway at South Side vegan spot Soul Vegetarian, including a new name, look, and fresh menu items, according to Block Club Chicago. In honor of the restaurant’s 40th anniversary next month, ownership plans to rebrand as Soul Veg City and introduce options like jerk nachos: “Now that plant-based cuisine is being sought after by more and more people, we have expanded our deli, we’ve added pizza and new soups, and we remodeled our building to be a shining oasis of Chicago dining,” the website reads.