Chicago and Cook County officials announced Wednesday they will slowly allow indoor dining and drinking at bars and restaurants to operate at an expanded capacity in an effort to avoid another surge of COVID-19 cases.
Starting Thursday — the beginning of the Valentine’s Day weekend — bars and restaurants in Chicago and suburban Cook County can seat no more than 50 people or 25% of overall room capacity, up from a maximum of 25 diners or drinkers, officials said.
Chicago, known as Region 11 under the state’s reopening plan, and suburban Cook County (Region 10) qualified for what state officials refer to as phase 4 restrictions on Jan. 30, which allows restaurants and bars to operate at 50% capacity or 50 people, whichever is less.
However, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Department of Public Health officials imposed tougher rules in an effort to ensure that the reopenings did not trigger a spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
After three days of a citywide test positivity rate of 5% or less, which indicates the spread of COVID-19 is in good control, it makes sense to loosen restrictions, Lightfoot said in a statement.
“We are definitely trending in the right direction today,” Lightfoot said.
However, Chicagoans should not stop wearing masks, washing their hands and keeping their distance from those not in their households, said Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
“Please do not mistake good news for ‘COVID is over,’ Arwady said. “The risk remains high.”
Dr. Rachel Rubin, the senior medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, said the “measured, careful approach” was necessary in part because a more transmissible variant of COVID-19 has been identified in Chicago and suburban Cook County.
Evanston, Skokie and Oak Park, which have their own health departments, are not covered by the county’s rules.
The city and county will allow restaurants and bars to operate at 40% of their normal capacity once the city marks three days at the “moderate-risk” level as determined by the number of COVID-19 cases diagnosed per day, the city’s test positivity, the number of emergency room visits for COVID-19-like illness and the number of intensive care beds occupied by those diagnosed with COVID-19, officials said.
An average of 466 Chicagoans have been diagnosed each day with the coronavirus during the past week, a 23% decrease from the previous week, according to Chicago Department of Public Health data. The city’s average test positivity rate is 4.7%, according to data compiled by the city.
That average must drop below 400 cases per day, based on a seven-day rolling average, before restrictions can ease, officials said. The city and county are meeting the metrics in the other categories to qualify for the moderate-risk level, officials said.
After 14 days — the amount of time it takes an individual infected with COVID-19 to start developing symptoms — at the moderate risk level, the city and county will allow restaurants and bars to expand to 50% of their normal capacity, officials said.
Sam Toia, the president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, endorsed the plan in a statement but did not appear alongside city and county officials at an afternoon news conference.
Rules requiring that tables of no more than six people be kept 6 feet away from each other will remain in place. In addition, bars must serve food, according to the rules. In Chicago, bars without a food service license can reopen as long as they partner with an eatery or allow delivery. Masks must be worn when diners are not actively eating or drinking, officials said.
In addition, bars and restaurants must continue to stop alcohol sales at 11 p.m. and close at midnight to on-site customers.