It’s been 450 days since Chicago’s restaurants and bars have been able to operate without customers wearing masks and tables spaced six feet apart. In the time since COVID-19 emerged and Gov. J.B. Pritzker first announced the suspension of indoor dining in March 2020, Chicago’s hospitality industry quickly adjusted with changing policies as health experts relayed new information about the disease that’s killed nearly 11,000 in Cook County.
The threat of tragedy caused conflicting emotions between customers, restaurant owners, and workers. This has all led up to Friday — barflies can now freely pull up a stool at the bar or mingle with customers. Diners don’t have to worry about quickly masking up as servers stealthily appear. While each establishment has the option to continue social distancing, the rules are no longer mandatory in Chicago and Illinois as Friday marks entry in the final stage of Restore Illinois, the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan.
The last 15 months have been been a strange ride with restaurant workers trying to create a comfy atmosphere for patrons to keep businesses from tanking. This was happening while applying for unemployment and Payment Protection Plan (PPP) loans, all under the threat of potential exposure. Many didn’t follow the restrictions, with reports of restaurants ignoring capacity limits and social distancing rules. Some avoided detection from city officials who patrolled the streets looking for violators. Those who were caught paid the price through fines.
Innovations born out of the pandemic, like the wide use of menu QR codes, will likely remain. But over the last few weeks, another reality has emerged — one with vaccinated servers wearing pins. Some restaurants still required masks while others posted signs telling vaccinated customers that facial coverings were no longer needed. Large parties of more than 10 can now book reservations without covertly reserving multiple tables and pretending friends sitting separately don’t know each other.
It should come as no surprise that not every restaurant or bar is ready to fully open. That pattern has become a tradition over the last year, with elected officials giving the service industry little notice when adjusting capacity limits. Some are waiting to see how competition handles customers.
Split-Rail in West Town, which has exclusively offered takeout and delivery since March 2020, won’t fully reopen Friday but will return for indoor dining “very soon,” says chef and co-owner Zoe Schor.
Once service resumes, Split-Rail won’t distance tables in the dining room but will require patrons to wear masks when out of their seats. Schor will also limit the size of gatherings for the time being, and keep Dorothy — her basement cocktail lounge — closed until later in the summer.
“Ultimately, we have spent the past year doing what was dictated by our conscience; simply put, we were and are unwilling to ask our team to essentially risk their lives to come to work, particularly given that there was the possibility of folks collecting unemployment,” she writes to Eater. “A lot has changed over the past year, and our vision and philosophy around many things have evolved as well… we’re so thrilled to feel like it is once again safe to open our doors to our friends and neighbors.”
For restaurateurs who entered the industry during the pandemic, a return to normal means changing the way they’ve always done business. Marc Walker, co-owner of playful soul food restaurant Ooh Wee It Is! in Chatham and suburban Burnham, says he is eager to transition from long lines of carryout patrons to bustling dining rooms. Though Walker can seat more than 250 in Chatham, he and wife Shae plan to steadily increase indoor capacity over time. They’ll also keep using a full-body disinfectant machine that checks customers’ temperature and sprays a sanitizing mist on each person who comes in — a pricey but worthwhile investment, Walker says. Mask rules will also remain in place.
“We’re going to ease into it and take some baby steps,” he says. “We’re learning — this is all new for us. We want to make sure we’re all being safe at the end of the day, and make sure we’re fully staffed.”
The lifting of restrictions also means future projects can progress. Walker has news: He’s planning to open new locations over the next few months in Wicker Park and Beverly.
For some local restaurants, the shift is a full reopening in name only. Labor shortages continue to stymie efforts to resume business at full capacity, even for operators who prioritize a living wage.
These include Beard & Belly, Edgewater’s beer and comfort food spot that opened in April 2020, says co-owner Andew Barbera. Despite offering $21-$22 per hour per a One Fair Wage model, he’s struggling to find enough workers. His team this week has begun offering draft beer and serving customers at the bar, but will only open six of 12 total seats. Barbera says the restaurant has not received any federal financial assistance.
“The opening up of the city is exciting, but doesn’t change a whole lot for us,” he writes to Eater. “We, like pretty much every restaurant in the city, are having a very hard time finding employees, and are just not staffed well enough to go full capacity and full operating hours… We will be taking our time, and adding things as we can.”
The labor challenge has led to some creative recruitment drives. Fifty/50 Restaurant Group co-founder Scott Weiner posted a message aimed at parents asking if their high school-aged children were interested in working. Mott St, the Wicker Park area modern Asian restaurant, has gone analog by posting paper help wanted flyers on street posts around its neighborhood. Restaurant owners are left with these throwback methods to attract employees who haven’t been ground down from their previous experiences in the industry.
The remain concerns about variants and the disease’s return. But, for now, there’s a sense of excitement this weekend in Chicago, and for the bar and restaurant industry, there’s pride in surviving.