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Illinois Restaurants Are Closer to Fully Reopening After Governor Unveils ‘Bridge Phase’

Changes will begin when 70 percent of Illinois seniors have received at least one vaccine dose

States Act To Close All Bars And Restaurants To Limit Spread Of Coronavirus
Chicago restaurants can see out of the tunnel.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Wednesday marked the year anniversary of when Illinois halted indoor dining at restaurants and effectively closed all taverns in Chicago after suspending on-premise service. A day after the anniversary, Gov. J.B. Pritzker revealed a path toward fully reopening bars and restaurants.

On Thursday, March 18, during a media briefing, Pritzker introduced a “bridge phase” toward Phase 5 — the final stage of the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan that would allow business to fully reopen. This bridge phase would begin when 70 percent of the state’s elderly population, those aged 65 and up, has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination. According to Pritzker, that number is currently at 58 percent.

“These vaccines are our fastest ticket back to hugging our grandkids, eating inside restaurants without worrying about the risks, school dances, community celebrations, all the things we miss about normal life,” Pritzker says.

Currently, restaurants in Chicago are allowed a maximum of 50 indoor customers per room or 50 percent of normal capacity, whichever number is smaller. The city, unlike areas outside of Chicago, does not allow for standing area, meaning bar patrons can’t post up around a bar. Elsewhere in Illinois, Phase 4 caps standing areas at 25 percent. The new bridge phase will loosen those rules, expanding that capacity to 30 percent indoors and 50 percent outdoors.

There will be no change to rules for seated areas, which will still be required to space patrons six feet apart and limit party sizes to 10 people or less. Farmers markets will be able to host 15 people per 1,000 square feet inside and 30 outside in the same amount of space.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has tailored a recovery plan for Chicago, as shown by the difference in standing area policy, so it’s unclear whether or when the city might adopt these new state guidelines.

“The end seems truly in sight. While we’re racing against a tough clock — the new and more dangerous variants, that is. It is fully in our power to turn the page on this dark and devastating chapter,” Pritzker says.

The road to Phase 5 includes a 28-day monitoring period. During this period, the state will look at key metrics including hospitalizations, cases, and deaths, as well as whether 50 percent of the state’s 16 and over population receives at least one vaccine dose. If those numbers don’t spike and if the vaccine program makes good time, only then will the state move on to Phase 5. The percentage of the population 16 and over with its first dose stands at 28 percent as of Thursday, according to Pritzker.

The state’s mask mandate will remain until the Centers for Disease Control supply further guidance. However, under Phase 5, social distancing — including keeping tables six-feet apart — would not have to continue.

Another bit of news is that starting Monday, April 12, all Illinois residents who live outside Chicago and are 16 or older will be able to sign up for vaccination appointments. The move is designed to help meet President Joe Biden’s May 1 goal of getting vaccines to all adult Americans. Pritzker praised the Biden administration for a “massive” increase in vaccine supply that he expects will continue to ramp up over the coming months.

Even after vaccination, doctors are preaching that diners should adhere to safety rules when eating at a restaurant. Phase 5 would also allow conventions, festivals, and large events to take place. Unfortunately, many trade organizations have to make a call now. Shows like the International Housewares Association’s Inspired Home Show and the National Restaurant Association show have already pulled out of McCormick Place for 2021.

March 29 remains the target for when service industry workers will be eligible for a vaccination. Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady told reporters on Wednesday that restaurant and bar employees should start receiving COVID-19 vaccinations in April, but most will have to wait until May.

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