The wrath of city inspectors looms as pubs try to limit crowds and create a safe and fun atmosphere
The city of Chicago has warned bar owners to operate responsibly as St. Patrick’s Day approaches, promising fines and shutdowns if COVID-19 safety rules are ignored. The weekend before the holiday, this weekend, will present a challenge. The city is doing its part to downplay festivities by canceling parades and the customary green dying of the Chicago River.
While St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday famous for shenanigans, the pandemic has cast a shadow of seriousness over the celebrations. Chicago’s large Irish-American population normally embraces the holiday. Now, bar owners are trying to create a fun environment while still reminding over-exuberant revelers that they need to stick to COVID safety protocols.
Bars could be fined up to $10,500 and face closure after two citations for COVID-19 violations. The city is also cracking down on holiday pub crawls. Some promoters have cancelled events. On Thursday morning, Chicago Public Health Department Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady delivered a memorable quote to help raise customer awareness:
“Green beer does not protect you from COVID, right?” she said. “There is nothing different about St. Patrick’s Day that means you should give up on the things that you would normally take from a COVID precaution.”
Customers shouldn’t expect the all-you-can-drink ticketed parties seen in previous years, according to a rep at Big Onion Hospitality, a group that runs Fat Pour Tap Works and more. Instead, Big Onion’s bars are selling table packages for four or six that include a bucket of hard seltzers, a bucket of Miller Lite, a bottle of Champagne, and a choice of appetizer. Customers have to remain at their own tables, and staff have rearranged the space to try to prevent mingling.
Operators hope these precautions will keep over-consumption to a minimum. They anticipate that restrictions, coupled with a smaller number of patrons, will likely make it harder for troublemakers to get away with inappropriate behavior.
Billy Lawless, who arrived in Chicago from Ireland in 1998, has had to make adjustments this year at his bars. For Lawless, St. Patrick’s is a great day to see old customers at the Gage, an Irish bar and restaurant that’s normally crowded during the holiday across the street from Millenium Park.
“Unfortunately, there’s no live music this year,” Lawless says. “I don’t think bagpipers blowing air through the whole bar is the healthiest thing through COVID.”
For operators like Lawless and Big Onion, last year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations signaled the onset of the pandemic that would turn lives and livelihoods upside down. Despite last year’s event cancellations, photographs of packed party buses and long lines of carefree drinkers outside bars were splashed across social media, infuriating Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
O’Shaughnessy’s Public House in Ravenswood, is among those trying to balance safety with a need for revenue, according to longtime manager Julia Velazquez. The bar is usually so packed on St. Patrick’s Day that servers struggle to navigate the space. This year, the staff will focus most of their attention on four holiday takeout packages, with traditional treats like corned beef with cabbage and shepherd’s pie, along with Guinness nitro cans and branded glasses.
The bar will allow 50 customers in its front room and another 44 in the back. Reservations are available for groups of six — the maximum officials will allow — but Velazquez says some customers feel the rules don’t apply to them. A group recently wanted to reserve a table for 10, saying the would-be patrons are all vaccinated and can do what they want.
“I said, ‘Good for you, but I’m not vaccinated and my staff isn’t vaccinated’ … It’s not safe and I don’t want to put anybody at risk,” she says. “We need money, everybody needs money, but safety comes first.”
Other Chicago businesses are also trying an at-home approach. Ravenswood’s Koval Distillery is offering a virtual cocktail class where students will learn to make Irish coffee, beer cocktails, and a “lucky green drink.” The Celtic Knot in suburban Evanston is also opting for special kits and packages, with outdoor seating available should the weather allow it.
Lawless’s venues, including the Dawson in River West, are offering to-go packages, but the focus is on on-premise service. Holidays like St. Patrick’s can help bars financially, and he says his bar is ready to contend with the public health threat and ensure that customers wear masks and tables are adequately spaced. The Gage is also serving special dishes like “Not Your Grandma’s Colcannon” with whiskey-braised pork, truffled potato, and cabbage.
“We have to live life and enjoy life,” Lawless says. “Our life is today.”
Brendan McKinney, owner of 21-year-old Irish pub Chief O’Neill’s, is not worried about rowdy revelers, as he has more than two decades of experience in creating a fun and relaxed St. Patrick’s Day environment. That’s the antithesis of crowded scenes in neighborhoods like Old Town, River North, and near Rush and Division. That’s where long lines pour out on to the sidewalks, and bar doormen have to manage drunken crowds. The city of Chicago does not want to see partiers congregating on sidewalks waiting for admission this year.
“It’s a Herculean task to make sure everyone has a good time and a safe time,” McKinney says. “Every year we improve upon it.”
McKinney and Chief O’Neill’s don’t want an unruly type of atmosphere in Avondale. Their bar is family friendly under the tent. They don’t have a need for a doorman. The pub’s large outdoor space can seat a total of 300 with tables under an open tent. He’s organized a number of socially distanced performances as well, including musicians and Irish dancers. Servers will take orders from customers, in a move designed to keep them seated and get employees back to work.
Chief O’Neill’s closed when Pritzker shut down indoor dining on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, and reopened in June, only to close again when the ban returned in October. He estimates that the bar’s numbers are down by 70 percent — a pattern that began after the holiday last year.
“You have a business that’s thriving and a tractor-trailer full of beer for [the holiday] — then boom, lights off,” he says. “A thousand pounds of corned beef ready to go, a cooler full of food and nowhere to put it. That’s how this symphony started.”