Despite increase vaccination availability, like those administered at the United Center, health experts worry about another indoor dining shut down. | Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Rising COVID-19 numbers, which mirror increases in Chicago, have Cook County officials worried

It’s not the news restaurant and bar owners wanted to hear, but over the weekend, a suburban doctor from the Cook County Department of Public Health told reporters that rising COVID-19 numbers could lead to a “clamp down within a matter of days.” Dr. Rachel Rubin, who helps coordinate how the suburbs have responded to the pandemic, echoed the warnings city officials made last week. Her comments came during a Saturday news conference.

This would be the third time indoor dining has been halted since March 2020 for the suburbs. There’s also cause for concern in the city with Chicago and suburban Cook County’s COVID-19 dining rules mirroring each other. The rate of COVID-19 cases haven’t been this high in Chicago and the suburbs since mid-October. Officials would halt indoor dining on October 30 and dining rooms remained closed until January 23. The current regulations for Chicago and the suburbs allow restaurants to serve a maximum of 50 per room (or 50 percent capacity; whatever number is lower). Fully vaccinated people don’t count against that number.

Last week, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot invited restaurant and bar owners to a special meeting (property managers were also in attendance) where she called for increased vigilance. The city warned that they’re ordering more inspections of restaurants looking for COVID-19 rule violators. Lightfoot wants restaurant owners to make sure customers adhere to mask wearing and social distance rules. Spring’s sunshine, and more vaccine availability, has brought more diners away from their homes.

There have been reported outbreaks. During last week’s special virtual meeting, health officials said 14 people who gathered at a private event and then went on a pub crawl contracted the disease. Now, according to the Tribune, comes news that 46 cases have been connected to a bar’s event in February in rural Illinois. The state health department did not share the bar’s name or exact location. A school with a 650-student enrollment was forced to close due to the event.

As numbers rise, health officials have been on the attack worried about Easter weekend gatherings and the start of Major League Baseball season. Wrigleyville bars welcomed Chicago Cubs fans back for the first home series of the season of the weekend. The city has allowed ticket holders to fill Wrigley Field at 25 percent of the stadium’s capacity or 10,343. Many Lakeview residents dread home Cubs games with increased traffic in the area, but it’s still a boon for bar and restaurant owners. At reduced capacity, hunting for parking wasn’t a big problem over the weekend.

On the self-enforcement angle, restaurants have heard from customers pleading that they have a preexisting health condition (such as pulmonary disease) that exempts them from wearing a mask. For many workers, the argument seems to be more anti-mask than about an individual’s health. Restaurants and retailers can avoid legal challenges by providing reasonable accommodations to “mask intolerance” by offering curbside services or delivery, according to the National Law Review.

A photo of a stack of laminated badges warning folks of mask interaction exemptions.Eater Tips
A viral post.

As a response — whether actually used at restaurants or just a joke — a social media post is being shared showing laminated badges that state “I am exempt from any ordinance requiring interaction from individuals not wearing a mask.” Workers feel they need something to show dishonest diners trying to evade COVID-19 safety protocols.

Still, that blame isn’t fully on customers. Customers told Eater Chicago of scenes over the weekend inside Lakeview bars where bartenders and bouncers refused to wear masks as mandated. In some cases, workers picked on tables with customers they didn’t like, threatening them to use facial coverings or be thrown out of the bar. Other customers were left alone. Enforcement, for whatever reason, wasn’t uniform.

  • COVID-19 restrictions, including indoor dining ban, ‘may very well’ return soon in suburban Cook County, public health official says [Tribune]
  • Cook County COVID-19 Dashboard [Cook County Public Health Department]
  • Event at a rural Illinois bar led to 46 cases of COVID-19 and school closure in February, CDC says [Tribune]
  • A few notes on the 10,343 who paid to see the Cubs Opening Day game [Bleed Cubbie Blue]
  • Mask Exemptions During the COVID-19 Pandemic — A New Frontier for Clinicians [JAMA]
  • No Mask, No Service? ADA Considerations for Business Owners Requiring Face Masks in Retail Stores [National Law Review]

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