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'Going Back To Shutdowns Would Be Devastating,' Restaurant Owners Say, But They Can Handle New Mask Mandate

Chicago restaurant owners say they can handle the city’s new indoor mask mandate, as long as customers obey the new rules and it doesn’t signal the eventual return of restrictions that nearly strangled the sector in 2020.

“We fortunately have a faithful following, and our customers have been supportive and easy to deal with,” said Eldridge Williams, proprietor of The Delta at 1745 West North Ave. in Wicker Park.

“It’s going to be business as usual, but we’re also going to do our due diligence and make sure we have masks on hand because we’re expecting a plethora of patrons that either forgot, didn’t know or just don’t want to, and we don’t want to turn anyone away,” he said.

The Delta's patio

The city’s move was announced Tuesday and takes effect Friday. It came after daily Covid-19 cases in the city surpassed 400, a rate last seen in early May. The mandate covers public spaces such as restaurants, gyms, bars, other retail and residential building lobbies. It is the first new coronavirus rule imposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot after all public health restrictions were lifted statewide on June 11.

Industry leaders call the mandate a modest step that shouldn’t threaten anyone’s viability. And restaurant owners say they see it as one of several minor adjustments necessary to ensure workers and diners feel safe while helping sustain their bottom lines during a pandemic that now shows little sign of ending.

“The mayor and her team are taking a very pragmatic approach by requiring masking indoors and not going to the extremes that we’re seeing in other cities,” Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said.

Municipal leaders in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities responded to the spreading delta variant by requiring many business patrons, including diners, to show proof of vaccination. That is a drastic step and could seriously disrupt restaurants’ operations, according to Toia.

“We’re encouraging everyone to go out and get the vaccine, but we also don’t want the government to make restaurants be the vaccine police,” he said. “The masking requirement isn’t ideal, but restaurants will be able to stay open and serve their customers. What the mayor has done is a first step that we can work with.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Some restaurateurs have already taken that step.

“We put that [requirement] back in a couple of weeks ago,” said T.J. Callahan, founder of Farmheads, which operates Farm Bar at 1300 West Wellington Ave. in Lakeview.

Callahan added that he doesn’t worry too much about the possibility of disruptive customers unhappy with the mandate, at least in his neighborhood.

“You’re not going to see that too much in Chicago in a highly liberal, highly educated community like Lakeview,” he said. “We haven’t had any incidents like that during the entire pandemic.”    

But the rise of the delta variant did deliver a hit.

“What we have noticed is more of a reluctance to come inside the restaurant,” Callahan said. “Over the summer, people were comfortable, but now I’m seeing people that if they can’t sit on the patio, they’re walking away.”   

Williams reopened his restaurant, which showcases the cuisine of the Mississippi River Delta, in March, but after a great summer, like Callahan, he also saw a few customers vanish when Covid-19 infections began popping up again.

“We’ve seen a 10% to 15% decline [in sales] over the past few weeks,” Williams said.

That makes the city’s new rules easier to accept, and he hopes masking will increase customers’ comfort with dining out, along with other minor steps taken when The Delta reopened. Its outdoor patio now includes a protective covering that allows customers to spread out and social distance regardless of the weather.

“It’s given us more flexibility to utilize that space, rain or shine,” Williams said.

And if customers wear masks, it will protect the waitstaff and bartenders, he added.

“Naturally, our biggest worry is our staff getting sick,” Williams said. “We’re all very vulnerable right now, but the only way to fully protect everyone is to close entirely, and we need to be open. So we need to take whatever precautions we can to minimize the risk.” 

Farm Bar in Lakeview

Dominique Leach, owner and chef of Lexington Betty Smokehouse at 756 East 111th St. in Pullman, along with two other West Side locations, said she is also ready to adapt.  

“We're confident that the mandate will not affect business,” she said. “We will go back to offering curbside pickup so our customers have the option. We want to keep everyone safe and comfortable.”

Mask resistance, however, is still a worry, she said.

“Some people just refuse to wear them. We try to be patient and accommodating to keep clientele from straying.”  

What worries Chicago restaurant operators more than the new mandate is the possibility that Lightfoot will take more severe steps, such as restricting indoor capacity, if Covid-19 hospitalizations, deaths or infection rates increase further, Callahan said. Two of his other Farmheads restaurants were permanently shuttered during the pandemic, and the 99-seat Lakeview location was at some points last year restricted to serving 24 customers.

“Losing capacity would be devastating,” he said. “And going back to shutdowns would be devastating.”