Indoor dining is back in Chicago more than two months after Governor JB Pritzker’s office closed dining halls due to a second wave of COVID-19. Dine-in service resumed on Saturday as the city has maintained a positivity rate below 8% for three straight days — a benchmark required to pass under the state’s new coronavirus mitigation plan.
It’s a moment some local restaurateurs have been looking forward to since November, eager to resume some semblance of normal operation. However, many Chicago operators aren’t rushing to relaunch. They are concerned about the safety of workers and customers, putting in place proper staffing and procedures, all on top of a new variant of coronavirus that has already been detected locally.
Those fears are justified, Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist and cardiologist at Northwestern University School of Medicine, told WBEZ. “While our current numbers may support the attempt to reopen restaurants and bars, I think it’s very dangerous,” she said. “We expect to see the British variant, or other more contagious variants, take over as the predominant cause of COVID in Chicago, and … it is entirely possible that the reopening of restaurants and bars will lead to an increase greater than what we may already be facing.”
The new allocations come with restrictions: no more than four people are allowed per indoor table (six are allowed outside), there is a maximum of 25% capacity or 25 people per room, and masks and distancing social are always necessary.
Many prominent local chefs and owners opened their doors as quickly as possible. James Beard Award winner Rick Bayless reopened restaurants inside Frontera Grill, Bar Sotano and Xoco in River North; Erick Williams, chef and owner of Virtue in Hyde Park, has also revived indoor service. Others have announced reopening plans but have given themselves some time to transition. After months of takeout — and even passing the time by selling burgers — Ever, chef Curtis Duffy will reopen his $5 million restaurant on Feb. 16 in Fulton Market.
People are nervous, but high levels of hygiene and cleaning will hopefully put them at ease, Naseer Mohammed, manager of Anmol Barbecue in West Ridge, told WBEZ. Yet others worry about the impact a reopening would have on staff members who are most vulnerable to public exposure to the virus and who have not yet been prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations. 19. They are also expressing fears of another round of reopenings only to be closed again by another spike in infections.
Among the operators erring on the side of caution is Michael Roper, whose venerable Andersonville Hopleaf beer bar remains closed. He explains his reasoning in a detailed Facebook post, noting the impact of the distancing rules on the usually friendly atmosphere of the bar as well as the significant costs involved: so uncertain of the safety, success and possibility of another peak, it may also be a financial mistake to reopen now at a time when we cannot afford it.
The property of Long Room, a neighborhood beer haven in Irving Park, is taking a similar approach, announcing on Instagram that “while we’d love to welcome you back, we’ve come this far, so we’re choosing to let this vaccine go.” ride and continue to operate with caution. They sold take-out cocktails and beer during the pandemic.
Reopening a restaurant isn’t easy – it’s a costly endeavor fraught with unpredictable pitfalls. Given the difficulty of the task, the lightning speed at which some restaurants appear to have returned to dine-in service with just one day’s notice has raised eyebrows among local owners. They suspect some restaurants may never have stopped indoor service.