Mayor Lori Lightfoot and city health experts told a group of about 1,000 — many who were restaurant and bar owners — during Wednesday afternoon virtual meeting that they’re worried about another COVID-19 resurgence that could lead to a third shutdown of city businesses. The rate of infections continues to surge — about 500 a day — reminding officials of the conditions in October when the state closed down indoor dining.
The virtual briefing wasn’t advertised to the public as — for now — the city doesn’t want to startle the city about the possibility of halting indoor dining again. Instead, during a Wednesday news conference, Lightfoot said rising concerns — a “quantum leap” in cases — meant the city would be delaying its plan to reopen businesses. Restaurants owners, particularly those downtown with large dining rooms to fill, hoped the city would increase indoor dining capacity from the current limit of 50 people per room, or 50 percent capacity.
During Wednesday’s briefing, Lightfoot told restaurant owners that the city needed their “full cooperation” to avert another shutdown. Restaurant owners were notified on Tuesday about the scheduled briefing via email. The invitations conveyed a seriousness: “We expect all restaurant owners, liquor licensees and residential building owners/associations to attend this meeting.” The Webex briefing was hosted by the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP).
“We can’t stop the spread in the latest uptick if people are on the sideline, we need people in the game,” the mayor said Wednesday.
The main culprits for spreading disease are gatherings of more than 15, according to officials. Health officials said they’ve seen outbreaks in the last few days, mostly stemming from private gatherings. There was an instance where 14 people were infected after gathering at a private residence before going on a pub crawl. Though there have been issues with restaurants going over capacity, that’s not the city’s main concern. The city is seeing the most regulatory violations at restaurants which allow customers to stand and mingle without wearing a facial covering. City restrictions say masks can only be removed while customers are seated and eating or drinking. Current mitigations continue to restrict customers from ordering at bar counters if there are other patrons seated at the bars at stools or chairs.
The rising numbers means the city will team with police and increase inspections. “We have no choice, we are very, very concerned to what we’ve seen recently,” BACP spokesperson Isaac Reichman.
Reichman said during the pandemic, 470 business have been cited for COVID-19-related violations, out of 10,000 investigations. From that number, 100 were short-term violations, where venues close for a day. More egregious, repeated violations required an operator to submit a plan to responsibly operate in the future, something that could keep a venue closed for days or weeks. Eleven Chicago venues have been given these long-term citations.
City officials have singled out North Side areas like Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Portage Park, and Jefferson Park as neighborhoods with the highest spikes of infection. They reiterated that bars need to properly manage their lines and ensure people are six feet apart. If they don’t want to do that, they should rely on a reservation system, he said. That was a worry during St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and it appears to be a concern again in Wrigleyville where the Chicago Cubs open their season on Friday. Inspectors will cite bar owners if lines impede pedestrian traffic.
“This is not the time to behave as things are normal,” said BACP Commissioner Rosa Escarena. “People’s lives are at risk.”
The city also made a few clarifications to rules:
- Parties no longer need to limit their time to a two-hour stay — though some restaurants may prefer to keep the limit.
- Restaurants can use impermeable barriers to divide larger indoor spaces. That would allow restaurants to seat additional customers. The city recommends using plexiglass, and that walls should be at least seven feet tall.
- At baseball games (or other large events with at least 200 people), the capacity limit is at 25 percent. The six-foot rule of distance between parties remains. The Chicago Cubs and White Sox have announced fans can order food via the MLB Ballpark app and pick it up at a concession stand in the stadium or, in some cases, have it delivered to their seats. Roaming vendors are unlikely to return in 2021. In related news, longtime vendor Lloyd Rutzky has retired.
- Guests at weddings and other private events are still required to wear masks while standing.
- The city will soon offer guidance on rules for summer festivals.
- The maximum capacity for rooftop decks is 100 people or 50 percent, whichever is fewer people.