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Chicago Restaurants, Music Venues Shut Down Voluntarily As Another COVID-19 Surge Hits City

Some businesses closed after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 or was exposed. Others have preemptively closed. "I'm gonna be honest: The staff is devastated and frustrated, afraid and rightfully so."

Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., in Ukrainian Village.
Hannah Alani/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Some businesses across Chicago are once again shutting their doors — this time voluntarily — as COVID-19 cases surge.

Multiple bars, restaurants and music venues announced temporary closures over the weekend after staff members tested positive for the virus or were exposed to someone who did. Among them: Rose Mary, Elske, Giant, Sepia, Lardon, Old Irving Brewing, Paulee Gee’s Logan Square, Parson’s West Town and Lula Cafe.

While some will close for a few days while staffers are tested, others, like the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., chose to extend a planned holiday closure.

Bruce Finkelman, whose hospitality group 16″ On Center owns the Empty Bottle, confirmed the venue will be closed until Dec. 30.

“We looked at our schedule, and we were able to extend [Empty Bottle’s] holiday closure a few more days to be safe and be healthy,” Finkelman said. “Our first goal is to look out for the health and welfare not only of our staff but our friends and our customers, and it just seemed to make sense.”

Other venue from 16″ On Center, including Thalia Hall in Pilsen, will remain open for now, Finkelman said.

Theater productions and professional sports leagues like the NHL are also taking a pause as cases spike.

The city and the rest of the state have struggled with rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths for weeks, fueled by the Delta variant. Now, the Omicron variant — thought to be more contagious — has been found in the city and suburbs, and it’s making up the bulk of new cases.

Chicago had 8,486 confirmed cases reported between Friday and Monday, bringing the city to 373,011 confirmed cases. An average of 1,776 confirmed cases are being reported per day, up 79 percent from the week prior. The city’s positivity rate is at 7.3 percent, compared to 4.1 percent a week ago.

Hospitalizations and deaths are rising, too, with Chicago now seeing an average of 10 residents dying per day from COVID-19.

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
More venues are requiring proof of vaccination to get into shows.

The newest wave adds strain to an industry that has struggled through the pandemic. As businesses reopened, many restaurants and venues required masks and proof of vaccinations or negative tests even without a citywide mandate.

Now, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other officials are expected to require similar measures at all businesses where patrons are indoors.

RELATED: ‘Traumatized And Exhausted’ Bar And Restaurant Owners Impose Vaccine Requirements, Mask Mandates As Delta Variant Hits City

On Sunday, owners of Berlin Nightclub in Lakeview, 954 W. Belmont Ave., announced they would take a temporary break “due to rising case numbers in Chicago,” and reopen Dec. 26.

“We thank you for the protective measures you are taking by getting vaccinated and boosted, getting tested, wearing a mask, and staying home if you’re feeling sick,” the club said in a statement on social media. “Let’s keep live entertainment alive! Please have a safe and healthy holiday, and we will see you soon.”

Robert Gomez, who owns Beat Kitchen in Lakeview and Subterranean in Wicker Park, said he has no plans to close his venues yet, but that in some ways it’s already “happening organically.”

“We had a cancellation on Sunday. Bands are testing positive for COVID and are being forced to cancel, which would be our policy anyway,” Gomez said. “I think [closing] is easier to do right now for some because the holiday actually falls on the weekend, and if you don’t have a whole lot going on during the week, why not close until New Year’s? But we’re not formally taking a position, just going to take it day by day.”

Gomez said his venues and many others in Chicago have required proof of vaccination to enter for months, which he said for the most part has been well received by patrons.

“We were a step ahead on that, we knew that we would be the first to be closed again unless we took steps ourselves. We’ve already been mandating that,” Gomez said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A sign requiring masks at a bar in Lincoln Square.

In Logan Square, Lula Cafe, 2537 N. Kedzie Blvd., closed Friday after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Owner Jason Hammel said the restaurant had already planned a holiday break, but he extended it because of the positive case.

“I’m gonna be honest: The staff is devastated and frustrated, afraid and rightfully so. And I’m very concerned for everyone’s wellbeing,” he said. “This wouldn’t be good anytime but again, particularly around the holidays, obviously it’s a really rough time. People are traveling and visiting family or choosing not to. It’s been a very difficult couple of days.”

Hammel said Lula plans to reopen Dec. 27, but that could change depending on virus cases. He said if the restaurant has to pivot to a to-go model, it will. Lula already requires customers to show proof of vaccination to dine in.

RELATED: No Shot, No Show: List Of Chicago Music Venues Requiring Vaccines Grows As Industry Tries To Stay Afloat Amid Delta Surge

“Certainly in this climate, a decision that’s made for next week is only a pending decision. We’re going to put the safety and health of our community first and see what happens after that,” he said.

In the wake of the latest COVID-19 surge, Hammel said he’d like to see public officials make free COVID-19 tests more available and possibly reinstate financial relief options for restaurant employees if closures become extended.

The “community is going to have to pull together and help each other in various ways, much like we did earlier on,” Hammel said. “Our restaurant workers are at risk. And I’m hoping that we can find ways to provide for them collectively.”

Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago
Five Star Bar at 1424 W. Chicago Ave. in West Town

Five Star Bar in West Town, 1424 W. Chicago Ave., closed Saturday after an employee learned they had close contact to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. Bar owners said the business immediately shut down to test employees who may have been exposed.

Asad Yousof, one of Five Star’s owners, hopes to reopen later this week, depending on the results of tests from staff members. Going forward, Five Star will check patrons’ vaccination cards upon entry and provide free PCR tests to staff, Yousof said.

The closure comes a month after Five Star reopened under new ownership after an extended hiatus.

Yousof said that’s made the financial impact of the closure hard to gauge, but he isn’t concerned about the bottom line right now.

“We are a new open, so we are looking at numbers as a new restaurant being open during a pandemic. Right now it’s nothing concrete; we haven’t even started our delivery services and opened up our hours in a complete fashion as we’ve had a lot of holidays prior to December,” he said. “Our main concern is everybody’s health and safety.”

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