CHICAGO — As temperatures begin to drop, the City of Chicago is preparing to relax restrictions on indoor activities later this week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Monday.
Starting Thursday, capacity limits on businesses including bars, restaurants, gyms and “non-essential” retailers will increase from 25 percent to 40 percent, up to a maximum of 50 people.
“Our city has made sufficient progress in the fight against COVID-19 to ease some of the restrictions on our businesses and give them an opportunity to grow and earn more revenue as we head into the winter months,” Lightfoot said.
With the number of new COVID-19 cases down since August and the test positivity rate around 4.5 percent, Lightfoot says the city has made enough progress to relax restrictions on indoor activities.
The mayor and Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said coronavirus-related deaths are down and hospitalizations are at an all-time low.
The city remains in Phase Four of its reopening plan, but this easing should be welcome news for those in the restaurant and hospitality industry.
Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said the restaurant and hospitality industry has been decimated by COVID-19 and the restrictions that followed, with 55 percent reporting they will go out of business within six months if things don’t change.
In addition to capacity limits of bars and restaurants increasing to 40 percent, they will now be allowed to serve alcohol for on-site consumption until 1 a.m.
But there are new rules for bar and restaurant customers as well, who will now be expected to wear masks whenever they are not “actively eating or drinking.”
While patrons were previously required to wear a mask while being seated or interacting with staff, they must now wear a mask unless they’re taking a bite or sipping a drink. The new measure is meant to protect diners and employees, Lightfoot said.
“I know this requirement is a pain in the butt – lets be clear about it – but it’s absolutely necessary to protect you, protect other diners, and protect the employees who are coming to your table,” Lightfoot said. “When you leave, whatever you brought in stays, and the workers have to clean up and they’re putting themselves at risk.”
WATCH ABOVE: Mayor Lightfoot joins city health and industry leaders in announcing new COVID-19 rules in Chicago Monday
Ordering must also be limited to tableside only, while service is limited to two hours per party. Each party can also include a maximum of six people. Restaurants and bars will be required to retain a customers’ email or phone number for possible contact tracing as well.
Bars, taverns and breweries which don’t serve food were previously barred from allowing dining indoors, but can now open up indoor seating for up to 25 percent capacity. They will also be required to either partner with a food provider or allow customers to order food.
In addition to increasing capacity limits for gyms, fitness centers and after-school programs to 40 percent, the maximum group size will also increase from 10 to 15 people, although they still must wear masks at all times.
Personal services that require removal of face coverings including facials and shaves will now be allowed as well, although they will be limited to 15 minutes.
All businesses should also provide hand sanitizer for customers and employees to use upon entry, according to the city.
Lightfoot said the changes are being made “based on what we’re seeing in the data,” and are aimed at helping businesses increase their revenue ahead of the winter months.
“As we’re all aware COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on our businesses, who are forced to close their doors, furlough workers or even shut down in the early stages of the pandemic,” Lightfoot said. “This is in no way, shape, or form a sustainable economic environment.”
Officials are still emphasizing the need to continue to wear masks, social distance and wash hands, otherwise they say we risk falling back and seeing another rise in cases.
“Now is the time to double down on the things that you know work, not to relax,” Arwady said.
Lightfoot warns these are cautious and prudent steps that she won’t hesitate to reverse if COVID-19 cases start to rise. When it comes to the question of whether Chicago Public Schools will reopen in November, the mayor says they will have to make a decision in the next few weeks, but we are not there yet.
“If we see something headed in the wrong direction. we’re not going to hesitate, as we did before, to step back,” Lightfoot said.
The easing of phase four restrictions are welcomed for bar owners around the city, including Mark Kwiatkowski of Replay Lincoln Park.
“I’ve had a bar here for 20 years,” Kwiatkowski said. “Transitioned it to an arcade bar in 2012.”
The bar and arcade games have been sitting in silence since the pandemic began while the makeshift sidewalk area has helped keep things going. But the relaxation of the rules will more than double the people who can be served by Replay.
In addition to serving inside, patrons will be able to play arcade games.
“We’ll have plenty of hand santizer everywhere,” Kwiatkowski said. “We are santizing the games between uses.”
The bar is known for pop-up themes and they’re kicking off Thursday with a “Stranger Things” pop-up.