The City of Chicago has further loosened restrictions on bars and restaurants, and indoor dining capacity can increase to 50% with a curfew extended to 1 a.m., but there are those in the industry who don’t feel safe going back yet.
“The moment that we were allowed to have bar seating, it was completely unsettling,” a Chicago bartender said. She agreed to speak to NBC 5 on the condition of anonymity.
“I have not had someone that close to me in 10-11 months. Especially a stranger that close to me. There’s no way to keep 6-feet distance between a bartender and a customer seated at the bar,” she said.
The woman has been in the industry for 18 years. She works at two neighborhood bars to make ends meet. She doesn’t feel like she has a choice on whether or not to work.
“That is my livelihood, and that’s what I’m faced with," she said.
She says she won’t feel safe until vaccines are offered to the food service industry. Currently, that isn’t slated to happen until at least Mar. 29, when Chicago moves into Phase 1C of its vaccination rollout.
It’s a growing concern among servers and bartenders. Some establishments have not reopened indoor dining at all, instead focusing on a takeout model.
Lost Lake, a tropical cocktail bar in the Logan Square neighborhood, is selling cocktails-to-go and subscription boxes.
“Our health or wellness in any way shouldn’t be compromised to do business,” said Shelby Allison, the bar’s co-owner. “Anytime you are taking off your mask around other people you are in danger of contracting or spreading the virus."
Allison says some of her staff are immunocompromised, and she wouldn’t feel right putting them at risk.
When the bar initially closed, she had 28 staff members. Now, there are nine.
“We did not break even last year. We lost money,” Allison said. “We will reopen once our staff is vaccinated.”
Julia Momose is taking the same approach at her Japanese restaurant in the West Loop. Kumiko offers cocktails and food-to-go.
“It doesn’t make sense to put people face to face with folks with masks off who are eating, dining and laughing,” said Momose.
She says they’ll reassess when staff are vaccinated.
Kumiko bartender Patrick Alvarez says he wouldn't feel safe going back now.
"Currently, no, absolutely not," he said. "While it might be safer for the diners themselves, because they’re spending not as much time in the same place for 10-12 hours, breathing that same air over and over again, as all these people come in. It’s not really something I’d feel comfortable with."
In Bucktown, Chef's Special will also continue takeout and delivery only. The cocktail bar does offer patio seating on the weekends.
"This is an abbreviated service with a drop off zone for the food and drinks near the door. Guests step up to grab their orders as they are ready," said managing partner, Chase Bracamontes.
Next month, if the weather cooperates, he anticipates full service on the patio. He says when it comes to indoor dining, they continue to assess the health risks and comfort level of staff.
"Right now we are on the cusp of receiving the vaccines, so it feels foolish to not reopen in tandem with that reassurance for our team," said Bracamontes.
"Hospitality is an emotionally taxing industry as is. Everyone in it deserves to know they are physically and mentally being looked after, especially after the rollercoaster that was this past year," she continued.