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'We Thought We Were About To Get On Steadier Ground': Restaurants Say New Vax Mandate Comes At A Shaky Time

The omicron variant added an extra winter chill to Chicago’s gathering recovery, and efforts to suppress it could put even more pressure on restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues. Many endured shutdowns that lasted months, followed by occupancy restrictions that forced some outlets to close permanently.

But starting Jan. 3, these city businesses were required to check the vaccination status of customers and keep out those not fully vaccinated. Public health officials say it is an attempt to both keep customers safe as the contagious virus spreads through the city and encourage more people to get vaccinated.

Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health Dr. Allison Arwady said other cities, such as New York and New Orleans, have instituted similar mandates and seen big improvements.

"It did have a significant impact on vaccination rates," she told WBEZ on Wednesday. "[New York is] not seeing a hospitalization surge because people are vaccinated."

Roots Handmade Pizza-South Loop at 744 South Dearborn St.

Business owners say that is a worthy goal, but checking each customer’s status could force some to either hire additional staff or just accept that this extra step will lead to delays — and even harsh words from customers reluctant to comply. If the new restrictions last too long and keep even a few customers home, it could put some businesses at risk just when it looked like they had gotten past the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We thought we were about to get on steadier ground, but when omicron sprang up, we lost a lot of bookings,” Fifty/50 Restaurant Group Director of Development John Aldape said. “I know the vaccination mandate is an effort to get more people vaccinated, but from an operational standpoint, it’s a struggle for us.”

“The restaurant game is a game of such slim margins, so every customer counts,” he added.

Fifty/50 got through the pandemic relatively unscathed. It didn't close any of the businesses it owns, which include the 90th Meridian Kitchen & Bar, Homestead on the Roof and The Berkshire Room, a cocktail lounge in River North, as well as several Roots Handmade Pizza outlets. But that doesn’t mean times are good.

Aldape said sales are at about 60% to 65% of the level normally seen by the company, although that varies a lot between outlets. Bars that service a lot of customers in their 20s and 30s are doing better than family-oriented businesses such as Roots, which used to host many post-school events. That source of revenue dried up because families’ youngest children still aren't eligible for vaccines. And some outlets such as West Town Bakery were already operating at limited capacity due to several employees being out sick.

That puts Fifty/50 in a tough position, Aldape added. Its restaurants where hosts normally seat diners should do fine, as they can check vaccination cards the same way they would check identifications for customers who want alcoholic drinks with their meals. But at more casual places, such as the bakeries, the mandate requires an extra step from employees.

“We’ve done our best to not add extra staff, because that’s not a luxury we have right now, unfortunately,” Aldape said.

Other owners agree.

Dominique Leach, owner and chef at Lexington Betty Smokehouse, said she, her wife, Tanisha Leach, and other staff have been on vacation for the holidays but are now set to reopen their outlets at One Eleven Food Hall at 712 East 111th St. in Pullman on the Far South Side and at 6954 West North Ave. in the Galewood neighborhood. 

"We have been treading water for so long and dread opening back up because we don't know what to expect," Dominique Leach said. 

She started a catering company in 2017, eventually deciding to open permanent restaurants dedicated to barbecue. The restaurants survived the shutdowns by doing carryout and box lunches for nearby hospitals, but current margins are thin and unlikely to improve soon.

"I don't care if you're the Four Seasons or Lexington Betty, January is slow," she said. 

Leach added that she plans to have customers' vaccination cards checked at the registers and then proceed with the orders, and she hopes that doesn't result in longer lines. 

"To put another body at the door means another staff member on the payroll, and since we're already in the red, that's not realistic," she said.

Her outlets have already struggled with some customers over wearing masks, and she worries they will resist showing cards. 

There hasn’t been much pushback from Fifty/50 customers, Aldape said, except on social media, where some irate people have complained about what they call an invasion of their privacy. But with margins so thin, even that can be worrisome.

“Everybody we’re speaking to is a potential guest, so we try to not get into arguments,” Aldape said.

Tanisha Leach and Dominique Leach

Some Chicago outlets have been checking vaccinations cards for months, long before the city made it a requirement. And although there were some hiccups in the initial months, these owners say checking cards has now become a normal part of doing business.

“We think the mandate is a wonderful idea,” said Katie Tuten, owner of the Hideout, a historic club just west of Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards development.

She is also a leader of the Chicago Independent Venue League, a group of more than 50 clubs, concert venues and performance spaces, including Copernicus Center, the Harold Washington Cultural Center, Lincoln Hall, Metro and Thalia Hall.

“All of us have been checking vaccination status since we reopened,” Tuten said. “Once people get into the habit, it’s fine.”

The Hideout reopened on July 6, and Tuten said she felt it was important to do everything possible to help suppress the pandemic. That included taking the extra safety step of checking vaccination status, even during the first few months when all its music shows were still held outdoors. All Hideout performers and staff are also required to be vaccinated.    

“Getting vaccinated is not really for yourself; it’s an act for your community,” she said. “And from the beginning, we wanted to be on the right side of science.”

Tuten did have to hire additional staff to check cards so other employees accepting payments don’t get swamped while handling weekend crowds. That is especially important for music clubs where customers tend to show up for shows at the same time.  

“But it’s all been worth it,” she said. “People feel safe, so it’s definitely enhanced customer confidence, and it also gave great comfort to our performers because they know they’re in a room with vaccinated people.”

The spread of the omicron variant led Tuten to close Hideout on Dec. 16, and it will remain shut until Jan. 18. She plans to even start requiring booster shots, once again getting ahead of the city’s rules.

Katie Tuten

CIVL members have also started talking to restaurateurs, offering advice on how to handle the city’s vaccination mandate, Tuten added. In the first few months, Hideout employees dealt with many customers who left their vaccination cards at home. But instead of simply turning people away and losing that business, they helped come up with alternatives, whether it was getting someone at their home to take a photo of the card and email it or finding a confirmation email from the pharmacy where they got the shot.

They also advise customers to register their vaccination status on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s online immunization portal, then download the provided code to their Apple Wallet, which makes it easy and quick to check.

“We’ve paved the path for restaurants,” she said. “And what we learned is you just need to be patient, because people need to get in the habit of carrying their cards with them.”

But with many restaurants unable to hire more staff, the mandate is still a worry, Aldape said.          

Medical professionals say the omicron wave will likely crest later this month and that fully vaccinated people, especially those who received a booster shot, are extremely unlikely to become seriously ill even if they are infected. That gives Aldape hope the threat of serious disease will soon recede and the new mandate will end up being temporary.  

“We don’t check any kind of ID for the flu or check to see if someone has a cold,” he said.

But whatever happens, Aldape said he isn’t gloomy about the restaurant industry’s prospects. The bad days were before free vaccinations were widely available, he said, when state and municipal officials limited the number of customers that could sit down and order meals. At times in 2020 and early 2021, restaurants could only fill up to 25% of their capacity, but all restrictions were lifted last summer.

“The fact that there are no more occupancy limits is huge for us,” Aldape said.

The mandate has only been in place for a few days, and January is typically a slow month for restaurants, so only time will tell if this new restriction becomes a real burden or a useful tool that gets more people to get their shots.

“That’s the key,” Aldape said. “People dining in our restaurants need to feel safe.”