Customers cover their mouths to order at the Red Barrel restaurant near Midway Airport. Credit: Chicago Mayor's Office

CHICAGO — At 5 a.m. Thursday, Chicago’s months-long pandemic restrictions on bars, restaurants, salons and gyms will ease, a move city officials hope will throw a lifeline to the struggling industries.

It will be too late for owners like Bob Parilla, who closed his Rogers Park restaurant for good on Sunday.

And, according to Parilla, just allowing more people inside wouldn’t have saved Twisted Tapas. Customers didn’t fill his place when he was allowed to have 25 percent capacity. Thursday’s planned boost to 40 percent capacity wouldn’t have changed things. People are scared to eat indoors, he said.

“If we were able to fill 25 percent a night twice a week, we’d survive,” he said. “It’s the perception of people. They’re scared to come in. I don’t blame them.”

With chilly weather descending on Chicago this week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the changes for restaurants, bars and more Monday with health officials, restaurant industry executives and more at her side.

Enough consistent progress has been made in the past month to warrant the changes, Lightfoot said. But if the numbers backslide, warned city Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, “we might have to go backwards.”

“Overall, we are heading in the right direction, and this affords us an opportunity to further re-open the city and to do so gradually and safely,” Arwady said. “But I can’t emphasize this enough: Chicagoans need to continue to follow the public health guidance – wearing masks, social distancing, frequent hand washing and staying home when sick – or we risk falling back and experiencing another rise in cases.”   

The planned changes are the first major easing of restrictions since the city entered Phase 4 of its coronavirus strategy in late June. Moving into Phase 5 depends on a vaccine, so officials made changes within Phase 4 to allow more people indoors and to allow more activities.

Here are the changes that go into effect Thursday:

• Breweries, taverns, bars and other establishments that serve alcohol without a food license may reopen with indoor seating, at 25 percent capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer. Service must be capped at two hours per party and end at 1 a.m. Patrons must be seated when eating, drinking or order. Patrons also cannot walk up to the bar to order.

• Restaurants, health and fitness centers, personal services and non-essential retail can operate at 40 percent indoor capacity, up from 25 percent. These establishments, restaurants and venues still are limited to 50 total customers within one room or space. The limit of no more than six people at a table also remains in place.

• Health and fitness classes and after-school programming may now allow 15 people in groups, up from 10.

• Facials, shaves and other personal services that require the removal of face coverings will be allowed, but the city recommends they last no longer than 15 minutes. Workers must continue to wear masks.

In order to help protect patrons and bar and restaurant staff, the city also is implementing these safety guidelines Thursday:

  • Diners must always wear face coverings while seated, except when actively eating or drinking. This protects employees that may interact closely with patrons.
  • Patrons at indoor bars, taverns and breweries must order from their seats – they cannot walk up to the bar to order.
  • Bars, taverns and breweries that are reopening indoors must partner with a food establishment so 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).
  • When taking reservations and seating walk-in customers, restaurants and bars should collect patrons’ email addresses and/or phone numbers for possible contact tracing.
  • Personal services that require the removal of face coverings are recommended to be kept under 15 minutes, and the employee conducting the service must always wear a face covering.
  • All businesses should provide hand sanitizer at the door for patrons and employees.

More information about the reopening can be found here.

The city is recording around 300 new coronavirus cases daily, down from around 350 as recently as August, according to city leaders. The city was recording 1,000 cases a day at its peak.

Test positivity is around 4.5 percent and severe complications from infections are reduced.

To relax restrictions, Chicago had to keep the positivity rate under 5 percent for a sustained period of time, according to Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health. The city has done so for the last two weeks, she said.

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Logan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale reporterrnrnmina@blockclubchi.orgnnLogan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale Twitter @mina_bloom_

Rogers Park, Edgewater, Uptown ReporternnRogers Park, Edgewater, Uptown Reporter Twitter @jaydubward