Chicago restaurants grapple with safety issues as indoor dining resumes


Friday marks the first day Chicago restaurants have been able to welcome diners on-site since mid-March, and the mood is mixed. There is excitement among business owners and workers desperate for income. Diners suffering from cabin fever during the state’s stay-at-home orders happily reserved tables on reservation apps. But others remain worried as the new coronavirus takes its toll. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported the disease killed 6,847 people in Cook County.

Expect to see safety measures such as plexiglass dividers, bottles of hand sanitizer and QR codes for customers to scan and read menus on phones. Restaurant managers are using disposable plates and silverware in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. Health experts say outdoor dining is the safest choice. Chicago patios have been open since June 3, but on rainy days like Friday, that’s not an option. At least not without a tarp like these stylish customers at Avenue Tavern in Lakeview used on Sundays.

Many restaurateurs have decided to wait. Gale Street Inn in Jefferson Park and Vito and Nick’s Pizzeria in Ashburn are among the restaurants delaying the reopening of their dining rooms. Many of the biggest restaurant groups – Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, One Off Hospitality Group and Boka Restaurant Group – are opening dining rooms on Friday.

The city and state are allowing restaurants to reopen at 25% capacity indoors. Face coverings must be worn by workers at all times. Customers can remove their mask while seated. Tables should be six feet apart and there is a maximum of 10 people per table.

Bars are also back in Chicago. Bars with food were allowed to operate with patios, but few have kitchens or patio space. A handful of bars – including Green Mill in Uptown, Love Street in Lincoln Park and Butch McGuire’s in the Gold Coast – are welcoming customers back. The city limits barflies to two-hour stays.

But there are security concerns for many. Brad Bolt, the veteran bartender behind Neon Wilderness at Wicker Park, will not reopen immediately. He is aiming for August 1. Bolt is worried about the health of his workers. He writes that the peace of mind is worth “more than a measly month of more lost income.”

These fears are apparently prescient given what is happening in Texas, Florida and Idaho. On Friday morning, Texas Governor Greg Abbott closed all bars again after the state saw an increase in COVID-19 cases. Restaurants have also made a stopover in Texas and will have to reduce their capacities.

This news touched Chris King. King’s worked in Chicago hospitality for about a decade in a variety of roles, including busser and server. He recently worked at the Lula Cafe in Logan Square. King is part of a group of about 90 industrial workers who have been organizing since late May. Chicago restaurant workers meet about once a week to work out ways to improve working conditions. King, who studies public policy and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, follows what is happening in Texas.

“This should be a sign to Illinois that our bars need to be closed,” he says.

Over the past week, restaurant workers have expressed concerns about returning to work online. King says industry members who have been away since March 17 want to know what their workplaces are currently like. They want to know what has been changed for security. Managers have failed to share this information with workers, King says. It’s a byproduct of the city giving owners little notice of a reopening date (Chicago made the announcement on June 19). This had repercussions on the workers. City and state reopening guidelines are dense, and a week isn’t enough time — even with webinars — to expect workers to absorb new information. For example, there are no government guidelines telling restaurants what to do if a worker contracts COVID-19. Does the restaurant close for two days or two weeks for deep cleaning?

“We value getting a breakfast burrito and PBR over people’s lives,” King says.

Piece Pizza — the Wicker Park brasserie known for its New Haven, Connecticut-style pies — is reserved for Friday and Saturday. Operating partner Bill Jacobs is delighted to welcome customers back. While some restaurant owners have struggled to find employees, Jacobs senses the enthusiasm of his own. They are an essential part of what makes Piece so successful.

“I will tell you that the vast majority are people who want to work,” says Jacobs. “They want to be here, they want to do their job.”

Jacobs is also concerned. In March and April, when Piece was open for takeout and delivery, he says his employees were extremely worried about risking their health. This convinced him to retain Dr. David Nayak as a consultant. Nayak is a practicing allergist-immunologist who studied at Northwestern University. Jacobs met him years ago in a yoga class.

Nayak – who is getting into podcasting – wants to help small businesses like Piece. He agreed to look into Piece’s operations. Nayak has also worked with Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale and Paulie Gee’s Pizza in Logan Square. Nayak says his job is to create an environment where people feel safe. They delve into the basics of using masks, social distancing, and hand washing. This repeats many steps that restaurants should already be taking. Nayak says they make a floor plan to make sure people have enough space between them and servers are less likely to run into customers.

“Owners are excited to have the increased capacity, but it comes with more challenges,” says Nayak. “The more customers you attract, the more you increase the risk of transmission.”

Many restaurants maintain employee health records. They take their temperature and make sure people are healthy at work. But that’s a lot for a company to bear. Some have complained about this, but Jared Rouben considers these responsibilities part of good hospitality. At Moody Tongue Brewing Company’s South Side brewpub — where Rouben and staff broke ground on a new patio on Thursday — staff will have extra masks for patrons who might walk out of their table without one.

“It’s part of our job and we’re happy to do it,” says Rouben. “It’s just our approach, hospitality is the backbone of our industry and I know that’s why I’m going out.”

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