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Chicago Easing COVID Capacity Limits For Bars, Restaurants

CHICAGO (CBS) -- There's a new reopening plan in the city of Chicago with expanded capacity rules.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city's health department, and its Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) on Wednesday outlined a roadmap "to cautiously ease regulations on businesses as COVID-19 metrics improve."

According to the city, the plan is also being adopted by the Cook County Department of Public Health.

Under the new plan, which starts on Thursday, indoor service at bars and restaurants can expand to 25% of normal capacity, or a maximum of 50 people per room, whichever is less.

The city plans to ease those restrictions further, including the expansion of indoor capacity to 40%, when the city reaches at least the "Moderate-Risk" level in the following metrics:

  • 200 to 399 new coronavirus cases per day citywide (Chicago is now averaging 466 new cases per day);
  • A 5% to 6.5% average test positivity rate (currently 4.7% in Chicago)
  • 60 to 79 emergency room visits for COVID per day (currently 69 in Chicago)
  • 100 to 299 ICU beds occupied by COVID patients per day (currently 148 in Chicago)

Capacity can then increase to 50% after two weeks (one incubation period) of successfully maintaining at least the "Moderate-Risk" level across all four metrics.

"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."

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Chicago has made significant progress in keeping the COVID case number down, leading to the lifting of some of the restrictions.

"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," Arwasy said. "I'm proud of how far we've come as a city and I know we can do this smartly and safely."

"As one of the most highly regulated industries in terms of health and safety, restaurants are ready and equipped to safely serve more diners indoors," said Sam Toia, President & CEO, Illinois Restaurant Association. "We have been advocating tirelessly on this point, and appreciate Mayor Lightfoot and President 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. 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."

While indoor dining capacity is expanding tomorrow to the lesser of 25% or 50 people, other regulations for bars, restaurants and events will remain in place. This includes the following:

  • 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

But this plan isn't enough for some in the restaurant community who were hoping to have restaurant capacity increased to 50% for Valentine's Day weekend. Arwady said the expansion can't happen just yet.

"My goal is to make sure that we can get restaurants, open safely in a way that does not lead to us needing to close them again," Arwady said. "And the issue is we still are at a high risk state for COVID, as this is measured nationally, internationally locally, those metrics have not changed."

The Chicago Restaurants Coalition said it is "expressing disappointment" with Mayor Lightfoot with not allowing restaurant capacity to hit 50% capacity.

"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 organization said in a news release.

The group said it will work with the city's alderman to push for support to increase capacity limits.

"The Chicago Restaurants Coalition will increase efforts to gain support from Chicago's 50 aldermen to challenge the mayor.  Also, the Coalition will continue to urge Lightfoot and the aldermen to allocate $50 million of the city's $2 billion tax increment finance (TIF) funds for restaurant grants, as well as allocate another $50 million to stop Chicago's unacceptable crime problems like carjackings, which are discouraging restaurant patrons from coming to Chicago."

Arwady emphasized the restrictions will slowly be lifted as long as the numbers are still trending downward.

"You've heard us lay out a path toward that 50% that I think we could move over just over the next few weeks, as long as the numbers keep looking good. And that is honestly as safe as quickly as it is safe to move," Arwady said. "We're moving as quickly as we can, and all the numbers are looking good. As soon as we can get into moderate risk, we'll go to that 40%. And as long as we can stay there for one incubation period, we'll go to 50%."

The Cook County Department of Public Health (CCDPH) is putting out a similar plan for suburban Cook County.

"We are cautiously optimistic about relaxing some restrictions – but it is imperative that we are careful in light of the new, very transmissible variants we are seeing," said Dr. Rachel Rubin, Senior Medical Officer and Co-Lead, Cook County Department of Public Health. "We must also continue to wear masks, watch our distance, and wash our hands to continue the gains we are making."

The Mitigation Order (2021-3) increases capacity limits in bars, restaurants and event spaces to the lesser of 25% or 50 people.

The order also includes masking language, to reinforce the need for everyone over the age of two, who can medically tolerate wearing masks, to do so in public places

"We are aligned with the Chicago Department of Public Health and Stickney Township in our approach. Working together, we will continue to monitor metrics and make steps that protect the safety and health of Cook County residents," said Dr. Kiran Joshi, Senior Medical Officer and Co-Lead, Cook County Department of Public Health.

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