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Mayor Lightfoot Eases Restaurant Restrictions, But Cold Weather Ahead Could Still Lead To A COVID-19 Surge

The slow strangulation of thousands of Chicago businesses will ease up this week, after Mayor Lori Lightfoot loosens public health restrictions on many bars, restaurants and other outlets. Effective this Thursday, restaurants and fitness centers can fill their indoor spaces to 40% capacity, up from 25%, and bars can now serve alcohol indoors until 1 a.m. with up to 25% capacity.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Many in the city’s business community had complained for months that public safety restrictions were too severe. Dozens of restaurants, including high-profile ones like the West Loop’s Blackbird, Gino’s East at 500 North LaSalle St. and Lawry’s The Prime Rib in River North, were permanently closed due to the pandemic restrictions.

And with the city facing a $1.2B budget gap in the next fiscal year, the mayor is under pressure to restart shuttered businesses that could pay taxes. But the move is also a gamble, as public health experts warn colder weather could bring on a surge of COVID-19 cases.   

The mayor praised Chicago residents and businesses at a Monday press conference for adhering to the restrictions first announced in March, but said the current rules are not economically sustainable, and it is now safe to give more help to businesses struggling to survive.

“It was because of this citywide cooperation and collaboration that Chicago never saw a huge surge in cases once we started to gently reopen,” she said. “However, COVID-19 is still here, and we must remain vigilant.”

It’s good news for T.J. Callahan, founder of Farmheads, which operates several restaurants in the Chicago region, including Farm Bar at 1300 West Wellington Ave. in Lakeview. But his business may not get back to normal until the coronavirus is gone.

“Topline for us, the increased occupancy is helpful, but you still must comply with social distancing guidelines,” he told Bisnow.

That’s not easy to do at the 99-seat restaurant. Farm Bar can now host 24 people, and on Thursday, the new restrictions will in theory allow 39.

Roots Handmade Pizza-Old Town, 1610 North Wells St.

“However, given the spacing requirements I only will be able to realize five to 10 additional seats, rather than the full 14 additional seats. I’m not complaining; I’m supportive of the social distancing requirements. It’s just that our restaurant is quite small and we don’t have the room to add the additional seating while still complying with the other requirements.”

Roughly 300 Chicago residents now test positive for the coronavirus each day, down from about 350 one month ago. The positivity rate is about 4.3% of those tested, which has held steady since the beginning of the summer, according to Chicago Department of Public Health data. Deaths in the city now average about two to three per day, down from around 50 at the pandemic’s height.

Representatives of the city’s business community said they support Lightfoot’s decision, adding that other public health measures, such as masking and maintaining social distance, would keep patrons safe in the months ahead.

“Increased capacity and longer hours will mean more jobs, greater opportunity for revenue and a path towards stability for our restaurants,” Illinois Restaurant Association President and CEO Sam Toia said. “We are committed to continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our workers and patrons as we take this essential next step in our economic recovery.”  

Others are concerned the mayor is moving too quickly.

“COVID-19 cases surged in southern states this summer as record heat sent parties, family gatherings, and dining indoors,” 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa tweeted Monday. “Now colder weather risks doing the same to Chicagoans — please continue to avoid indoor gatherings for public health.”

CDPH Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Monday officials will watch the infection rates closely, but a further loosening of restrictions may soon be possible.

“Even if things are stable 28 days from now, we may, for example, be able to move to a 50% capacity.”