Restaurant owners say they’re being ‘scapegoated,’ ask Lightfoot to sue state over COVID-19 restrictions

Chicago News

CHICAGO — A group of Chicago restaurant owners say their industry is being scapegoated for the spread of the coronavirus Wednesday, claiming data doesn’t show dining out is dangerous. 

State-ordered restrictions stopped indoor dining — the lifeblood of the restaurant industry — on October 30 as health officials try to stem a rising tide of COVID-19 infections. 

With many of their businesses struggling to stay alive, a newly-formed group of restaurant owners requested data from the Chicago Department of Public Health showing exactly how many people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 visited a bar or restaurant. 

“If the data does not point to and directly connect restaurants and their employees to the spread of the virus, then we’ve got to reassess what we’re doing here in the city of Chicago,” said Roger Romanelli, who heads the Fulton Market Association.

In response, the City provided data collected by contact tracers from around 8,000 Chicago residents who tested positive for COVID-19 between June 1 and September 15, representing about 45% of all cases confirmed in the city during that time. 

Of those respondents, about 15% said they visited a public place within two weeks of testing positive for COVID-19. About half of those people — 585 in total —  said they visited a restaurant.

Romanelli and Chicago restaurant owners argue the data shows they’re being singled out for blame.

“It is time, in our city of Chicago, to stop restaurants from being the scapegoats,” Romanelli said.

While health officials have admitted there is no way to definitively track where someone contracted COVID-19, since it’s impossible to determine the exact moment they were exposed, officials said bars and restaurants are “by their very nature a concern during a pandemic.”

“It is difficult to maintain social distancing, people are talking and interacting often in close proximity to one another, and they must frequently remove their masks to eat and drink, which increases the risk of transmission,” the City said in a statement.

A recent CDC study also found adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were about twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than those with negative test results.

Still, restaurant owners argue there’s no direct proof that eating inside of a restaurant makes the spread of the virus any more likely than being inside of a casino, a gym, or a grocery store.    

“Explain to me how you can walk into any store in the city and suburbs and touch products that haven’t been sanitized or wiped down as religiously as this industry has, and think about the possibility of bringing the virus home when you do that,” said Rich Ruffalo, Napoletana Forno Rosso. 

Data released recently by the Illinois Department of Public Health shows contact tracers identified one outbreak of COVID-19 connected to a Chicago bar over the past 30 days.

Additionally, state data on COVID-19 cases grouped by “potential exposure locations” identified by contract tracers ranks bars and restaurants (combined) above other possible locations.

In recent weeks, public health officials have also pointed to private gatherings as the primary problems in the spread of COVID-19 – a point not lost on the restaurant industry.  

“The restaurant industry is not the cause of this pandemic. Human nature, people are still going to gather, so why not have them gather in a controlled environment,” said Anthony Waller, Catering Out the Box. 

Several owners said they have spent thousands of dollars on new air filtration systems, ultraviolet lights, deep cleaning, and other preventative measures, only to see their service be shut down.  

“They’re punishing us – we feel – for no reason at all,”  said Nancy Bruni, B Hospitality Group. 

Now, the restaurants want Mayor Lightfoot to press their case with the governor. If a conversation doesn’t yield results, they say the city should sue the state to reopen the restaurants.  

In its statement, the City said it would work with bar and restaurant owners to help them weather the pandemic, but made no promises about a potential lawsuit.

“One of the many unfortunate consequences of this pandemic has been the detrimental impact on the hospitality industry, but we are committed to continuing to work with the industry to help them weather this difficult time,” the statement said.

Regardless, owners argue with a cold winter coming they may be forced to close if they are not allowed to bring more customers indoors.

“We have fixed costs and those fixed costs don’t go away because our revenue is declining,” said Mike Roper, Hopleaf Restaurant.

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