Restrictions ease, but Chicago cites 5 bars, restaurants over COVID rules

Restrictions ease, but Chicago cites 5 bars, restaurants over COVID rules

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is allowing bars and restaurants to be open later and increase capacity, but city inspectors are looking for COVID-19 rules violations. Five restaurants and bars were just cited.

In the latest move to resurrect a hospitality and entertainment industry battered by COVID-19, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has again expanded operating hours and increased capacity at Chicago’s bars and restaurants.

But the city is also checking to ensure businesses follow the rules, especially as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. Five bars and restaurants were cited for failing to enforce mask restrictions or social distancing rules. Inspectors checked 73 businesses recently and cited three businesses in addition to the five bars and restaurants.

“As we continue to expand reopening, it is critical that businesses do not lose sight of all the health regulations, not just the capacity limits, that keep our community safe,” said Isaac Reichman, spokesman for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

Effective since March 2, indoor seated capacity at bars, restaurants and other business increased from 40% to 50% or 50 people, whichever is fewer. Hours were extended from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. The “no standing areas” provision remains in force.

Tables are limited to six people for indoor and outdoor service, with six-foot distancing between parties. Masks are still required, except when patrons are seated and actively eating or drinking.

The expansion of hours is the “light at the end of the tunnel” for David Halpern, managing partner of 4 Entertainment Group, which operates five bars in Chicago, 14 in Ohio and one in Kentucky. Except for a brief hiccup, all of the Chicago locations had been shut down since March 16, 2020.

“Now we’re talking about a viable, tenable situation, especially for bars which thrive on later hours,” he said. “A two-hour increase from 11 to 1 is massive for our industry. Plus, people are getting vaccinated and more assistance is coming,” particularly from the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund in the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bill.

With warmer weather on the horizon, outdoor dining will help energize bars and restaurants as well. Based on the new guidelines, Halpern and his business partners, Ben Klopp, Bob Deck and Dan Cronican, have accelerated their timeline to reopen all of their Chicago bars.

“We opened Easy Bar several weeks ago, and by April, the whole operation will be back,” he said.

Still, Halpern considers the glass half empty.

“I absolutely think we should be permitted to operate at our normal hours,” he said.

Pre-COVID-19 hours ranged from 2 or 4 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays to 3 or 5 a.m. on Saturdays, depending on the bar location.

“Our industry has been treated as a scapegoat. There was no science that suggested that bars and restaurants that were following safe distancing and mask mandates were more dangerous than family gatherings or house parties with no restrictions,” Halpern said. “The reality is, young people were likely not going home at the 11 o’clock curfew. They were getting together in someone’s home, often without masks or distancing.

“We deal with crowd control 365 days a year regardless of COVID.  Ultimately, our industry proved we could operate safely.”

The situation was vastly different in Ohio, where all of 4 Entertainment Group’s 14 locations have been operating at roughly 50% seated capacity, no standing areas and a 10 p.m. curfew for roughly 10 months.

The leisure and hospitality industry, which had been one of the healthiest segments of the Illinois economy, has been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis. That segment lost 40% more jobs during 2020 than the nation as a whole. Furloughing staff members has been a major stress point for Halpern.

“Emotionally, you’re drained,” he said. “That balancing act of not wanting to deliver terrible news to our staff was very difficult, but we knew that if we could get to the other side, there would be jobs for everyone to come back to.”

While the industry as a whole is impatient to reach 100% occupancy and full hours of operation, Lightfoot and Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, are still urging caution.

“We believe that rushing to reopen more than 50% would not be prudent or safe at this time,” Reichman said. “We want to make sure that our plan to reopen doesn’t endanger the significant progress we’ve made.”

Private parties are another pain point for this industry. The cap for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations remains at 50 people, but Reichman said the city continues to evaluate that regulation and will consider further easing of guidelines as appropriate based on the metrics.

But Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, wants to see a major increase for private parties soon.

“As we move into spring, I would like to see that moved up to 150 per gathering,” he said. “The current limit hurts caterers.”

Chicago’s latest guidelines are on par with those mandated for the state by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, though not identical, Reichman said. The state’s Stage 4 guidelines don’t specify a percentage for seated capacity. They call for tables spaced six feet apart and standing capacity of 25%, while Chicago does not allow standing areas at bars and restaurants.

“I am thrilled that we have reached 50% capacity, but I again call on all of our businesses and residents to double down on what works,” Lightfoot said. “We must remain diligent as we continue to move forward cautiously and responsibly.”

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