Celebrate a New Year in Illinois at Indoor Restaurants as Early as January 15th

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Illinois Governor makes statement about what it will take to restore indoor dining.

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If you are anything like me, one of the hardest things about the isolation that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, is the inability to go to an indoor restaurant. Restauranteurs should be applauded for the creative methods of enabling people to eat safely outside.

Yesterday I went for coffee with a friend at a restaurant with a large outdoor tent like structure that was still open on all four sides and had artistic fire-based heating towers and flames coming from the ground surrounding a shallow sand pit. It was toasty warm and being able to sit somewhere without freezing to have a cup of coffee felt so decadent.

Being able to go where you want became a thing of the past in Illinois as it did around the country when all indoor dining was prohibited. I took for granted the privilege of packing up my computer each morning and walking the two blocks to my neighborhood coffee shop where I spent much of the day and knew everyone who worked there and the other local customers several of whom were also writers.

As bad as it seems for customers, the pandemic has led to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the state and bankruptcy for many establishments. Prior to passing the stimulus bill, Illinois restaurant owners joined with others from around the country to lobby Congress for relief. They also included the results of a survey that showed 86 percent of restaurant owners surveyed in the state expect to lose more sales while 64 percent reported that operating costs are higher than before the pandemic began in March, 2020.

Over half of the Illinois restaurant and bar owners stated without further federal aid that their establishment would close within six months. Seventy percent have 20 percent less staff than before the pandemic with more than 60 percent saying that they will face more layoffs in the next few months.

In a letter dated Dec 7, 2020, the National Restaurant Association stated, “In short, the restaurant industry simply cannot wait for relief any longer. Efforts in Washington to find the “perfect” solution are laudable, but the lack of progress in the meantime has led too many operators to give up on the government and close down for good. Since our last update to you, less than three months ago, an additional 10,000 restaurants have closed nationwide.”

The new Stimulus Package includes further funding for restaurants and restaurant workers. The package will provide up to $1200 a month for furloughed restaurant employees which is half of what the first stimulus bill provided. The Paycheck Protection Program, has been reinstated to offer loans to the restaurants after the $120 billion RESTAURANTS plan, which was more in line with the needs of the industry, failed to pass. Although this aid is welcome, it has also been referred to as a band aid for restaurants who have lost most or all of their customers and workers over the course of the past nine months.

However, there is good news from the Governor of Illinois for restaurant owners, workers and those who enjoy dining indoors. During his Wednesday news briefing on January 6th, Governor J.B. Pritzker stated that he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the state could potentially lift some COVID-19 restrictions for restaurants as soon as Friday, January 15th.

The state of Illinois has been operating under “Tier 3” of its COVID-19 mitigation plan since November 20 which has permitted only takeout and delivery services for food along with outdoor dining, providing social distancing is observed. Indoor dining service was stopped at Chicago restaurants and bars earlier on October 30. Initially, indoor dining was stopped on March 30th statewide, restored from June 26th through October 30th at 25 percent maximum capacity, then stopped once more.

Before moving to restore indoor dining, it would be required for the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive to be under 6.5 percent. This would allow the state or region to be changed to Phase 4.

However, this also means that the entire state doesn’t have to move from one phase to the next together, but that smaller areas can fulfill the requirements to do so. This would potentially allow indoor dining to be restored more quickly in smaller areas.

The governor has been hesitant to decrease restrictions especially in regards to public gatherings including at indoor restaurants after talking to Dr. Anthony Fauci and other healthcare experts. These authorities recommended that he be extra careful during and following the winter holiday season, when people were more likely to gather in larger groups than they would at other times.

Health professionals have warned that this could lead to a spike in COVID-19 rates, starting around two weeks later. The accepted incubation period for the virus after exposure occurs is 14 days.

Since January 15th would be 14 days after New Year’s Day, Governor Pritzker is waiting for that date to determine whether the rates increase in different regions and across the state as a whole before determining if he can downgrade the tier. The reason he is hopeful is that following Thanksgiving there wasn’t a significant increase in positivity rates two weeks following Thanksgiving.

Once the state or a region within the state enters Phase 4, indoor dining at restaurants can be started again provided groups consist of 10 or less people. Tables in seating areas must also be spaced at least six feet apart, while standing areas can be occupied at no more than 25% of normal capacity.

Phase 4 is the next to last phase in Illinois, with a transition to Phase 5 occuring only when testing, tracing and treatment are widely available throughout the state. This final phase allows for all economic sectors to reopen although new health and hygiene practices will be permanently in place. Gatherings of all sizes will also be able to resume.

So, if you have been eagerly awaiting the chance to return to your favorite Illinois restaurant and be able to dine inside, you may be able to do so before much longer, which would be another great reason to celebrate as we begin the new year of 2021.

#nbholidaycheer

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Chicago, IL
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