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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

City Warns West Side Food Pantry For Violating Mask Mandate, But Founder Says Enforcement Is Uneven

Eat or be Eaten received a warning for not following the city's mask rules at a recent wedding. The organization's founder said they want to keep folks safe, but when people are eating and drinking, masks come off.

People wearing masks enjoy the warm spring weather at Promontory Point in Hyde Park on April 26, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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AUSTIN — A West Side food pantry received a city warning for not complying with the recent mask mandate, but an organizer said the pantry was written up after an event where attendees were taking precautions but were spotted leaving without masks.

Eat or be Eaten received a “notice to correct” Aug. 20, the day the citywide mask requirement went into effect. The Austin organization was among 13 businesses across the city given warnings for not enforcing masks among patrons since Aug. 20, according to the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.

The violation happened during a private wedding at the charity’s headquarters, 5433-5435 W. North Ave., which doubles as an “affordable event venue for formal events and for community gatherings,” founder Natalie Williams said.

“Some guests were leaving to the car. The police noticed we were having an event and they came by. The officer was concerned about us being there as an event space,” Williams said.

Officers were cordial when they wrote up Eat or be Eaten, Williams said, so she was not upset by the situation.

“I’m not frustrated because I know it’s coming from an attempt to keep the community safe,” Williams said. “It’s really hard living in a pandemic, and I’m pretty sure they are doing the best they can do.”

Credit: Google Maps
Eat or be Eaten is a West Side nonprofit that operates a food pantry and hosts private events.

Williams was unaware the mask mandate had taken effect that day, she said. But given the community services Eat or be Eaten provides, she was already being “extra cautious” to make sure guests at her events wear masks.

Masks were provided at the door, staff and entertainers were required to wear masks and most guests were wearing masks when they weren’t eating and drinking, Williams said.

“It’s a thin line because it’s hard to take a picture from out of context. If you see somebody without a mask, you don’t know if they were just smoking a cigarette or if they had just put a drink down. It’s difficult to assess,” she said.

Most people who come for the food pantry, the organization’s aid programs and private events are happy to comply with the mask rules, Williams said. Only rarely has she had to confront people who refuse to wear a mask, she said.

“Most of the people, especially those coming in looking for assistance, they’re not looking to put themselves or others in danger. People have been really respectful of that,” she said.

Williams said she doesn’t feel like her business was singled out and chalks it up to different enforcement strategies being rolled out in different areas of the city.

“It’s like going to different high schools with different principals where the uniform might be enforced different,” Williams said. “With Lollapalooza and the Kanye concert, none of these people had on masks. But I got a warning. So yeah, I’m salty in that aspect of the bigger scope of things. … But it’s hard to get all on one page. Chicago’s huge. “

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