CHICAGO — A group of about 30 restaurants want Mayor Lori Lightfoot to postpone a requirement for indoor businesses to check patrons’ vaccination status as Chicago battles another wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lightfoot announced Dec. 21 that Chicago businesses where people participate in indoor, leisure activities — including restaurants, bars, gyms and event venues — will have to verify their customers are fully vaccinated starting Monday.
Members of the Chicago Restaurants Coalition, speaking at a Monday news conference, said two weeks’ notice during the height of the holiday season is not enough time to prepare. Some said they don’t have enough employees to ensure someone is checking the cards, don’t have time to train for the policy or haven’t gotten guidance from the city or police on how to deal with customers who refuse to comply.
They also said the requirement burdens a struggling industry that cannot afford more expenses without added governmental support. In a letter sent to City Hall, group members asked to have until Jan. 15 to meet the requirement and requested more public dollars for restaurants.
The mayors of Boston and Washington, D.C., also have set Jan. 15 deadlines for restaurants to start checking cards.
“I don’t have any people on staff to do this. It’s not something that I had in my budget when trying to figure out how to cover my operating expenses,” Mary Kay Tuzi, owner of Twin Anchors in Old Town Triangle, said at the news conference. “I think the restaurants have been in the crosshairs this entire pandemic.”
The requirement comes as Chicago and Illinois record a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Local officials expect those numbers to worsen after the holidays. The majority of the severe cases and deaths have been in people who are not fully vaccinated, officials have said.
When asked last week why the city is waiting until Monday for the vaccine proof requirement to start, Lightfoot said officials wanted to give restaurants time to comply.
The city’s business department has also held webinars to provide guidance on the requirement to affected businesses.
Everyone 5 and older must show proof of full vaccination at eligible businesses and establishments. People 16 and older will also have to provide an ID that matches their vaccination record.
Besides restaurants, bars, gyms and venues, vaccine cards also must be checked at coffee shops, food courts, dining areas of grocery stores, movie theaters, sports arenas, bowling alleys and several other places.
Lightfoot did not give a timeline for how long the requirements will be in place. City business investigators will check to make sure signs are posted and that businesses have a plan for what employees are supposed to do and are following it.
“I think we’re not gonna have any difficulty enforcing it,” Lightfoot said. “Frankly, a lot of our restaurants and other venues are asking us to do this. I think this will give comfort not only to the patrons, business owners, but also to employees.”
The city has supported local businesses navigating COVID-19 with over $115 million in aid since the start of the pandemic, said Mayor’s Office spokesperson Alejandra Flores Rebollar.
“Throughout this pandemic, businesses have shown their commitment to the health and safety of their employees and patrons by strictly following public health guidelines,” Rebollar said. “Businesses have stepped up in the past to keep our city safe and implement the necessary measures to protect the health and wellbeing of our residents.”
Roger Romanelli, coordinator of the Chicago Restaurants Coalition, said restaurant owners will do their part to help control the spread of COVID-19. But he said he thinks owners need more help to meet the requirement and restaurants are being unfairly targeted for the city’s latest wave of COVID-19 cases.
“Restaurants don’t want to be unduly burdened, and they don’t want to be unduly singled out as hotspots for COVID,” Romanelli said. “We could do much more to get people vaccinated than force restaurants to have to check their customers.”
Tuzi said she and her staff at Twin Anchors, 1655 N. Sedgwick St., are fully vaccinated, and the popular restaurant has taken precautions, like adding plexiglass between tables. Margins in the restaurant industry are thin, Tuzi said, and she cannot afford another full-time staffer to check vaccine cards at the door.
“I absolutely want to do everything within my power to help our community and our city get everyone vaccinated,” Tuzi said. “But I think using the restaurants as the incentive, I think it’s short-sighted and I think it’s foolish.”
Len DeFranco of Hawkeye’s Bar & Grill, 1458 W. Taylor St., said the requirement will only “wind up putting us out of business.” Hawkeye’s has not received federal COVID-19 relief funding, and DeFranco said his restaurant is not financially or logistically equipped to be “TSA personnel.”
“We’ll do our best to comply, but it’s not going to look pretty,” DeFranco said.
Romanelli also said some restaurants owners fear backlash from angry customers and want more support from police to protect staff. In the letter to city officials, he asked police Supt. David Brown to give “written instructions” on how to manage hostile customers, citing an incident from September in which tourists attacked a New York City host after she asked for proof of vaccination.
“Our coalition is encouraging restaurants across the board to install internal security cameras with audio in case there’s an incident with an unruly customer,” Romanelli said. “But they don’t have the money to do this.”
DeFranco said he plans to follow the rules. However it plays out, he doesn’t see his precautions making a significant dent in the pandemic.
“We’re still looking at the Dutch boy putting his finger in the dike, trying to hold back the flood,” DeFranco said. “It is burdensome.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: