Chicago and suburban Cook County are expanding indoor dining capacity at restaurants and bars Thursday, looking to ease restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday that indoor service at bars, restaurants and events can expand to the lesser of 25% capacity or 50 people per room or floor effective Thursday.
Additional restrictions can be lifted - including the increase of indoor capacity up to 40% - once the city reaches a "moderate risk" level in certain metrics: COVID-19 cases diagnosed per day and test positivity, among others officials said.
The metrics required to increase capacity to 40% under the new plan are as follows:
- COVID cases diagnosed per day: currently averaging 466, in the “High-Risk” level. This number must be below 400 new cases per day to reach the “Moderate-Risk” level.
- COVID test positivity: currently averaging 4.7%, in the “Low-Risk” level
- Emergency Departments visits for COVID-like illness: currently averaging 69 per day, in the “Moderate-Risk” level
- ICU beds occupied by COVID patients: currently averaging 148, in the “Moderate-Risk” level
Capacity can then increase to 50% after two weeks of successfully maintaining "moderate risk" levels across all four metrics, according to the city.
“We are definitely trending in the right direction today, and I thank the residents and businesses that continue to do what is necessary to save lives,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “The tragedy of this pandemic unfortunately continues but there’s hope at the end of this long journey. This path to 50% capacity ensures that we move forward with hope and confidence but also with the necessary precautions in place to ensure that the rush to reopen doesn’t endanger our progress.”
City officials noted that the positivity rate of 4.7% as of Wednesday was at its lowest point since early October and that cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all "dropped considerably" since the second surge of the pandemic in the fall.
“While we’re excited to be making this move today and further re-opening Chicago, it needs to be done the right way or we risk seeing an uptick in cases and having to tighten restrictions yet again,” Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a statement. “I’m proud of how far we’ve come as a city and I know we can do this smartly and safely.”
While capacity expands, other regulations still remain place, city officials said. Those include:
- Food must be available at all times in order to offer indoor service. This means that bars, taverns or breweries without a food license can reopen indoors as long as they partner with a food establishment so that food is available to patrons at all times (e.g., making menus available and allowing delivery, allowing patrons to order from third-party delivery services).
- Maximum of six patrons at indoor or outdoor tables
- Patrons can sit at bars, with six feet of social distancing between parties
- Face coverings must be worn at all times, except when patrons are seated and actively eating or drinking
- Patrons must be seated whenever they are eating or drinking
- Tables must be six feet apart
- Establishments must close for on-site service at 12:00am
- The sale of alcohol must end at 11:00pm, including alcohol sold for on-site consumption, delivery or carry out
The Cook County Department of Public Health announced a similar lifting of mitigations for suburban portions of the county in conjunction with the city on Wednesday, increasing capacity limits in bars, restaurants and event spaces to the lesser of 25% or 50 people in alignment with Chicago's new guidelines.
Chicago's new plan was announced days after Lightfoot hinted that the city was considering expanding indoor dining capacity with Valentine's Day weekend around the corner.
The Chicago Restaurants Coalition, which represents hundreds of Chicago restaurant owners and other businesses, expressed "disappointment in Mayor Lori Lightfoot's decision [Wednesday] not to increase restaurant indoor dining to 50% capacity in time for Valentine’s Day weekend."
"Having lost millions of dollars in sales during the pandemic - - in part due to City Hall indoor dining shutdowns - - most restaurants remain on the verge of financial collapse," the group said in a statement. "Today, Lightfoot announced that her Jan. 23 indoor dining restriction of 25% capacity will remain, but restaurant rooms can hold up to 50 people instead of 25 people, whichever is lower. For most of Chicago's 7,300 family-owned restaurants, this doesn't help."
The city entered Phase 4 of Illinois' coronavirus mitigations on Jan. 31, which allows indoor dining capacity to increase, among other changes, under the state's guidelines.
But as restrictions were relaxed as Chicago entered Phase 4, Lightfoot and Chicago officials decided not to increase the indoor dining capacity limit in according with state guidelines, leaving it at the lesser of 25% or 25 persons per room.
In explaining the decision to curtail the state's Phase 4 guidelines, Chicago health officials said it was "standard public health practice" to monitor the impact of any significant mitigation change for a minimum of two weeks.
Sunday, Feb. 14 marks two weeks since Chicago entered Phase 4 mitigations. Partial indoor dining resumed in the city on Jan. 23, when the city reached the threshold to move from Tier 2 to Tier 1 mitigations under the state's reopening framework.
At a news conference on Monday, Lightfoot acknowledged that the restaurant and hospitality industries have been extremely hard hit during the pandemic and hinted at an announcement this week.
"There's ground to be made up," she said. "I'm very well aware that we're in daily conversations with the leading trades for the restaurants. This is something that we spent some time talking about over the course of the weekend."
As the city entered Phase 4, Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said restaurants were confident they could safely serve more guests - and needed to in order to survive.
"As one of the most highly regulated industries in terms of health and safety — and with enhanced precautions introduced during COVID-19 — Chicago restaurant operators know how to protect the wellbeing of their guests and team members," Toia said earlier in the week. "The industry needs more to survive this crisis."
On Wednesday, Toia said the new announcement increasing capacity came at a "critical time."
“We have been advocating tirelessly on this point, and appreciate Mayor Lightfoot and President [Toni] Preckwinkle’s continued dialogue and action on this issue. It is estimated that 20% of restaurants will permanently close as a result of the pandemic," Toia said. "Today’s announcement comes at a critical time, and is another step towards recovery. Restaurants need this increase, as well as federal relief, more than ever.”