Chicago restaurant, bar and gym patrons will be required to show proof of vaccination and a driver’s license before dining, drinking and exercising indoors, but weekly testing would be enough for employees, under new mayoral mitigations to be unveiled Tuesday to curb a winter surge tied to the Omicron variant.
Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said the new city policy described to him would apply only in “situations where customers are inside for a longer period of time — I think, 10 minutes — unmasked.”
“This is all about taking your mask off or drinking or in a gym situation to work out,” Karr said.
“It’s a pretty measured approach considering [the recent surge]. If you’re just picking up food or your drink — think Dunkin’ [Donuts] or Starbucks where you walk in, get your coffee and leave — you don’t have to show it.”
Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said he has urged Mayor Lori Lightfoot to postpone the mitigations until Jan. 3 and exempt restaurant employees from the vaccination requirement to avoid exacerbating staff shortages as high as 25 percent in some Chicago restaurants that already has dramatically reduced service.
Both Toia and Karr said there would be a weekly testing option for unvaccinated employees.
“Usually in a dining room, a wait person has like a four-table station. Right now, they’re doing six- or seven-table stations. That’s why people are waiting longer” for their food, Toia said.
“If you lose more people, what is the wait supposed to do a 10-table station? It ain’t happening . . . You go out to eat for the food. But you come back for the service.”
Lightfoot has said she is determined to curb the winter surge of coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron variant without forcing Chicago restaurants to close their dining rooms again or reimpose capacity limits.
On Tuesday, the mayor will announce just how she plans to do that.
After extensive negotiations with the city, Toia said the city is “moving toward requiring” restaurant patrons to show their vaccination cards and driver’s licenses before entering indoor dining rooms.
“Some people are asking, ‘Do you have to have the vaccine and the booster?’ The CDC has not come out saying the booster has to be part of it. So not at this point. You would just show that you’ve had the vaccine. Two shots,” he said.
To avoid “hindering our industry’s very fragile recovery,” Toia said he has pleaded with the mayor to exempt restaurant employees from the vaccination requirement so long as they test negative on a weekly basis.
The mayor appears willing to entertain that “business-friendly compromise,” he said.
“They said, ‘We hear you and we’ll try to get there,’” Toia said.
“I think it’s gonna take effect after the holidays, number one. And number two, can we make sure that employees can show a COVID negative test to go to work if they don’t have the vaccine.”
Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, said enforcing a vaccine requirement for restaurant patrons is “certainly going to be more burdensome.” It will add “another layer of bureaucracy” and costs to restaurants already “thinking about reducing their hours because of no help,” Tunney said.
But, if the alternative is another indoor dining shutdown or more capacity limits, Tunney said requiring proof of vaccine is “probably a reasonable middle-ground.”
“There’s no good coming out of this thing. But, given where we’re at and this latest surge, I guess it’s the prudent thing to do at this point. We certainly don’t want to be shut down. That’s for sure,” Tunney said.
“I just hope we don’t have to do it for long. It’ll increase payroll costs. You’ll need to have more than a host checking ID’s and cards. You’re adding another administrative process and we’re about customer relations.”
Mayoral press secretary Cesar Rodriguez refused to comment on the mitigations.
Many theaters and sporting events have been requiring proof of vaccination for months.
Twice already during the pandemic, Chicago restaurants and bars have been forced to stop serving patrons indoors and shift to carry-out. They have also been forced to endure months of capacity limits.
Roughly 20% of Chicago’s more than 7,300 restaurants did not survive the pandemic.
Yet another indoor shutdown would only trigger even more closings, Toia said.
A vaccine requirement for restaurant employees could nearly double that 20% closure rate, he said.
Toia said he has asked the mayor to delay the mitigations until Jan. 3. It was not clear whether City Hall would honor that request.
What about the problems posed by having to deny entry to unvaccinated restaurant patrons who demand to be seated anyway?
“We’ve talked about that with the mayor and the mayor’s people as well. She said she would think about some penalties we could have in place if that is a problem. If someone is giving someone a hard time at the door,” Toia said.
Karr pointed to “all of the negative interactions around mask” requirements. He urged City Hall to help enforce the vaccine mandate if there is “significant resistance.”
“If somebody is simply gonna refuse to comply and causes a scene, we hope somebody shows up to help,” Karr said.
Chicago’s test positivity rate is 7.3% – nearly double the 4.1% daily average of last week. And the city is averaging 1,776 cases a day, up 79% from 991 a week ago.
Hospitalizations are up 12%, from 56 a day a week ago to 62 a day now.