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As Indoor Dining Resumes, Chicago’s Restaurant Workers Petition Mayor For Vaccinations

Workers are seeing a disconnect between increasing indoor capacity and waiting for inoculations

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Triton College in River Grove is a vaccination center.
Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Health Department Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwardy said the city could loosen COVID-19 restrictions in the next two weeks and increase the number of customers allowed inside restaurants. Officials have a plan to gradually raise the maximum capacity in dining rooms from 25 to 50 percent. Right now, the metrics are trending favorably, convincing health experts that partially restoring indoor dining poses less of a risk to the public.

Many in the restaurant industry hail this as good news. Sam Toia, the president of the Illinois Restaurant Association — the group of state lobbyists representing restaurants — says that it feels like the sector is seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel” during a period when hundreds of restaurants have closed and thousands have lost their jobs.

Meanwhile, on Thursday afternoon, Ald. (9th Ward) Anthony Beale — whose constituents live in South Side neighborhoods including Chatham, Pullman, Riverdale, Roseland, Washington Heights, and West Pullman — sent out a news release asking Lightfoot to immediately increase capacity to 50 percent. Beale doesn’t want to debate this on Zoom, he’s calling for meetings to return to City Hall.

But not all in the industry are cheerful — many workers are worried about the prospect of going to work without a vaccination and being exposed to the novel coronavirus. Chicago’s restaurant and bar workers aren’t considered “essential workers” under state regulations and thus won’t be prioritized for vaccinations until March 29. Even that date seems tenuous as Chicago lags behind in vaccine rollout: On Thursday morning, Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinckle sent out a news release warning the public that the city does not have enough vaccines to inoculate the population. The statement comes after Gov. J.B. Prtizker announced the rest of the state will expand eligibility to grant access to those with high-risk medical conditions including pregnancy, cancer, and diabetes.

“Our goal is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Lightfoot and Preckwinkle’s statement reads. “That said, our greatest challenge in doing so is the very limited supply of vaccine we are receiving.”

Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded the state’s vaccination program to include restaurant workers. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has done the same for the Mitten. Right now, Chicago is the second phase of vaccine rollout, concentrating on the elderly, health care workers, and those deemed essential workers — which includes grocery and liquor store employees, plus those employed and food manufacturing plants (which includes breweries). Chicago and Illinois officials have yet to address concerns about restaurant workers and vaccination eligibility.

A petition began circulating last month begging Lightfoot and Arwady to increase the vaccine access to service industry workers. Ashley Lindsey, a six-year veteran of Chicago’s restaurant industry, started the petition in frustration, she says, after seeing how her colleagues — many of them without health care coverage — are being put in harm’s way while without a vaccination. A 2019 survey claims 31 percent of restaurants offer workers insurance options.

Lindsey is a server and bartender at DryHop Brewing in Lakeview, a restaurant that benefited greatly when the city closed off streets, including Broadway, to allow outdoor dining. Winter’s arrival ended the “Dine Out” program and Lindsey says she doesn’t feel comfortable serving customers indoors, as some patrons refuse to wear masks or to respect the workers.

She says that the push to resume indoor dining, while Chicago officials complain about vaccine availability, sends a contradicting message to industry workers who feel elected officials have disregarded their well beings. She feels elected officials don’t care about the safety of restaurant workers, and that’s demonstrated in part by how they’re expected to ensure customers behave and follow social distance rules. “Putting people who don’t make minimum wage in the position of regulating the persons who are you paying you — it’s an infuriating situation to me,” Lindsey says.

“I really don’t think that people are considering us at all,” she adds.

Lindsey says she wishes the IRA and other elected officials would discuss vaccine availability more instead of glamoring the return of indoor dining. IRA President Toia could says he’s spoken to state and city officials about granting restaurant workers access before March by including restaurant workers in the current rollout phase, 1b.

“They’re essential workers, just like grocery store workers,” Toia says.

Thursday morning’s news release from Lightfoot and Preckwinkle addressed expanding the rollout by making more people eligible for a vaccination. Part of the concern is to ensure that the vaccination reaches neighborhoods badly hit by COVID-19:

“While we are making progress every day with vaccinating people in 1a and 1b, at this time we are not being supplied with enough doses that would allow us to expand eligibility in these phases,” part of the release reads.

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