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Partaking In Patio Season? Be Very Careful, Doctors Say As Nervous Diners Emerge From Quarantine

Patio dining is fairly safe when restaurants heed the safeguards and customers are “vigilant” about washing their hands, practicing social distancing and wearing masks, medical experts said.

After months of being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, DryHop's patio opened for outdoor dining.
Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — People are rushing to fill Chicago’s newly reopened restaurant patios — but others are staying put out of lingering concerns about the coronavirus.

Even Chicago’s top officials are split: Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she’s already eaten at a patio, while Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said Friday she won’t eat out because she’s being very careful.

Chicago entered Phase 3 of the city’s reopening plan June 3, allowing restaurants to open to outdoor dining with safety precautions, such as requiring masks when not eating and requiring social distancing. And starting Wednesday, bars and breweries will be able to reopen for outdoor drinking, as well.

Obedience to the guidelines has been mixed. Some spots have implemented even stricter guidelines than the city’s, insisting diners do temperature checks or sign waivers.

But at other restaurants, people have crowded together without physical distancing, servers worked without masks and people have been seated fully indoors against city rules.

‘Good Way To Start’

The city gave restaurants strict guidelines to follow if they reopened: Indoor dining is allowed only within 8 feet of windows or panels that are open and take up half or more of a wall. There can’t be groups of six or more at a table. Diners should wear masks when not eating. There should be at least 6 feet of space between tables.

Dr. Shameem A. Abbasy, a doctor at Swedish Hospital, said patio dining is fairly safe when restaurants heed the safeguards and customers are “vigilant” about washing their hands, practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

“Being outside, maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask — the servers wear a mask — I mean, I think that is a reasonable way to sort of reenter public life at this stage in the game,” Abbasy said.

But, Abbasy added, it’s reasonable for people at high risk from COVID-19 or those who live with such people to stay home and not go to patios.

Dr. Richard Novak, head of the infectious disease division at the University of Illinois at Chicago, agreed patio dining was “a good way to start” reopening the state and people will have to weigh making this “measured risk” before eating at restaurants.

But Novak cautioned there’s a threat for a second wave of COVID-19 cases if people stop being careful.

“There are a lot of people who are going to restaurants and they’re not wearing masks and they’re not really practicing social distancing,” Novak said. “And so I’m a little concerned that that may lead to a resurgence of the disease after we worked so hard to get it to start to decline.”

Lightfoot said during a Monday press conference she ate at a patio over the weekend and it had proper social distancing guidelines in place. She warned if restaurants do not follow the new rules, they will be fined or shut down to prevent a surge in cases.

“I understand there’s a lot of enthusiasm on the part of restaurants and patrons to get back out to enjoy the great restaurant scene here in Chicago, but we absolutely have to do that abiding by the rules and regulations we have put in place around social distancing,” Lightfoot said.

The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection has received more than 200 complaints, cited three businesses and issued warnings or notices to another 29 since June 3, when restaurants reopened. But a spokesman said they could not specify how many of those complaints, citations and warnings were for restaurants.

The department “is focusing on outreach and education to ensure that all businesses that are cautiously reopening under phase three are doing so safely and responsibly,” a spokesman said in a statement. “However, we are prepared to take enforcement action when necessary, and we have issued warnings for minor violations and citations for egregious disregard for the health order.

“It is critical that our reopening efforts don’t diminish the health progress we’ve made over the last few months.”

Mixed Feelings

It came as a surprise to many when Lightfoot announced the city would move to Phase 3 of its reopening plan June 3 and allow restaurants to seat diners outdoors.

For days before the announcement, Chicago had been rocked by massive protests, and Lightfoot and other officials had warned there could be an uptick in coronavirus cases because of the crowds. At the time, Lightfoot said small business owners told her the city needed to move forward.

Industry officials are pushing for even more, saying restaurants need indoor dining to make it through the pandemic. But Chicagoans were divided, with some saying they feel the city rushed to reopen restaurants.

Adrian Rojas, of Albany Park, wants to wait to eat out to make sure there isn’t a second wave of coronavirus infections. He also said he is worried about restaurant workers who may not receive proper training or protection, especially when diners aren’t wearing masks or social distancing.  

“It seems to me like a rushed effort simply to promote the interests of business owners,” Rojas said.

Mawuli Agbefe, of West Englewood, said he worries about restaurants being lax about the guidelines, though he recently went to Sheffield’s Beer Garden in Lakeview. Safety is key to reopening, even if life looks differently than before the pandemic, he said.

“It was very different to get used to the new normal, but I enjoyed part of the normalcy that it felt like I was getting back to,” he said.

Others have felt more comfortable dining out.

Peter Kroner, of Pilsen, said he has eaten out several times since restaurants reopened. He said he completely supports allowing patio dining to help small businesses recover losses from depleted operations.

“They should have done it like a month and a half ago, [to] be honest,” Kroner said. “I think we could have been virtually normal right now. I’m completely comfortable. And I think it’s actually way too slow.”

Rachel Cawthorn, who lives in Wrigleyville, said she has been to restaurants almost every day in her neighborhood, as well as in Uptown and Lincoln Park, since the reopening.

The majority “really made it clear that you had to have the mask on” when walking anywhere away from one’s table and had “hardcore sanitizing” while turning tables over between guests, Cawthorn said.

“You run into more people going to the grocery store or the post office or Walgreens,” Cawthorn said. “They’re enforcing these kind of safety guidelines, so it felt more safe than going to a grocery store where you could be touching surfaces that aren’t always sanitized.”

Farrin Adams, of Bronzeville, said she saw few customers wearing masks at a South Loop restaurant last weekend, but the tables were adequately spaced to allow for social distancing. The servers were all wearing masks.

“The only thing I could probably recommend is probably having a better cleaning process after wiping the tables down,” Adams said. “We wiped our own chairs down. They did wipe the table off but we wiped our own chairs down and then maybe probably having hand sanitizer at the tables.”

Read all of Block Club’s coverage on outdoor dining here.

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