As Chicago restaurants enter a new era where owners can determine if masks are optional for fully vaccinated customers and staff, new policies are emerging. While flexibility has advantages, it also brings anxieties. Beyond requiring restaurants and bars to post signage that explains if masks are mandatory for customers, city and state officials haven’t provided direction when it comes to vaccine verification.
For some restaurants — including Andies Restaurant, a full-service Middle Eastern spot in Andersonville — nothing has changed as owners continue to keep the dining room closed and rely on outdoor dining with masks required for those picking up food or entering to use the rest rooms. The decision to keep dining rooms closed for some restaurants can also be linked to labor concerns with owners struggling to hire workers.
Others, such as Ella’s BBQ — a counter-service restaurant in Lincoln Park — have made masks optional for fully vaccinated customers and workers. A hand-written sign on the door spells the policy out. They’re using an honor system to determine who’s vaccinated and who’s not. This is in step with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance.
While not requiring vaccinations, The Alinea Group will provide vaccination lapel pins to any employees who voluntarily choose to show proof of vax. Those employees will not be required to wear masks per CDC guidelines, and guests can identify them via the pin. /1 pic.twitter.com/g4tIU7RO6Y— nick kokonas (@nickkokonas) May 22, 2021
For restaurants within the Alinea Group, home of Chicago’s top fine dining restaurant (according to Michelin), co-owner Nick Kokonas says fully vaccinated workers no longer have to wear masks. Fully vaccinated workers can elect to wear lapel pins to show customers proof of inoculation.
Kokonas tells Eater Chicago that the company considered “many avenues” before establishing their policy: “The CDC and federal government have encouraged businesses to be proactive in setting their own guidelines and practices and this one way of doing that,” he writes. “I’m sure that we will continue to iterate as restaurants begin to fully reopen, hopefully.”
He tweets that he’s reluctant to follow make vaccines mandatory. He’s worried about “ambiguous legal direction from local and federal governments.” With some exceptions — including workers with a pre-existing medical condition or some religious grounds (say, if a church leader objects to a vaccine and a worker is following their direction) — employers can mandate vaccinations. Kokonas adds that he hasn’t been notified of any workers who can’t take the vaccine due to a pre-existing condition. Notably in Chicago, Fifty/50 Restaurant Group (Homestead on the Roof, Roots Pizza, Utopian Tailgate) is requiring vaccines for workers.
In the interim, as Chicago diners navigate a new frontier, they’ll encounter a variety of house rules. And while it might be difficult to keep track of the expectations of different venues, it beats the alternative of being forced to stay at home.
In other news...
— Hop Butcher for the World, the brewer that just announced plans to move into the Half Acre’s Lincoln Square space, has teamed up with Billy Corgan on a tea-infused beer to mark the 30th anniversary of “Gish,” the influential Smashing Pumpkin album. It’s a partnership with Madame ZuZu’s Teahouse, the shop and cafe in suburban Highland Park owned by frontman Corgan and wife, Chloe Mendel. The Tribune has more.
— Louisa Chu’s first restaurant review in her role as co-critic was published Monday morning by the Tribune. Chu awards three stars to Dear Margaret, the French-Canadian restaurant in Lakeview. Though it’s takeout only, Chu didn’t want to wait for the dining room to open. She writes that the duck liver mousse, which she made regularly while working in Paris, “plays radiantly with smoked and pickled onion slivers.” Chu’s colleague, Nick Kindelsperger, made his debut last week. The duo replaces Phil Vettel who left after 31 years in January.
— The Rogers Park community mourns Felipe Vallarta, 61, a prominent neighborhood street vendor who on Friday died of COVID-19 at Glenview Hospital, according to the Tribune. Vallarta and wife Zenaida Castillo have since 2015 sold elote and other Mexican snacks on Rogers Avenue in 2018 were featured in the Sun-Times. Vallarta fell ill in early April, days before he received his first vaccine dose. Supporters have raised more than $23,000 in a GoFundMe for his family.
— Lakeview vegan restaurant Kitchen 17, known for its deep-dish pizza, will relocate its headquarters to Northeast Indiana, according to Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly. Sisters and co-owners Jennie and Lorry Plasterer aim by 2024 to have fully moved operations to their home town of Huntington, about 155 miles southeast of Chicago. They plan to invest more than $1 million in a 25,000-square-foot production facility with a prep kitchen, rooftop farm, event space, and more.
— The Sun-Times package on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder includes a story on the impact of looting on businesses, including restaurants, outside the highly-publicized downtown area. The paper interviewed Asif Raza of Star Sub in Windsor Park and Georgia Utendahl of Georgia’s Food Depot in Englewood, who described how property damage has affected their restaurants.
— The Chicago chapter of Let’s Talk Womxn, a networking group for women restaurateurs, will on Friday, May 28 kick off a series of monthly dinner-and-panel events at Vermilion in River North. This month’s panelists will be Tigist Reda (Demera), Diana Dávila (Mi Tocaya Antojeria), Sandra Holl (Floriole), Laurence Noguier (Bistronomic), and Rohini Dey (Vermilion). Tickets, menus, and more details are available via Tock.