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Do most Chicago restaurants like the vaccine mandate? You may be surprised.

Chicago restaurant owners applaud vaccine mandate — especially if it prevents another ‘catastrophic’ industry shutdown



DEC 23, 2021 AT 11:19 AM

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Reaction ranges from relief to anxiety to skepticism among bar and restaurant owners that their customers will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to eat or drink out in Chicago as of Jan. 3.

But a common theme also emerged: Anything is better than another industrywide shutdown.

“If (vaccination) cards help keep our doors open, then I’m for it,” said Mike Moreno, co-owner of Osito’s Tap, a restaurant and bar in Little Village. “I am, however, skeptical if cards are being faked. And how long does a vaccine really keep you protected? We’re not doctors, so all we can do is abide by the rules and see if it helps.”

At a minimum, Moreno said, he hopes a vaccine requirement will boost consumer confidence about dining out. Business was “fantastic” until Sunday, he said.

“Sunday was extremely quiet,” Moreno said, and it was no better when Osito’s reopened for business Wednesday.

Moreno attributed the drop-off to news of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in Chicago as the omicron variant takes root as the dominant strain of a virus that has upended the hospitality industry for nearly two years.

As of Thursday, the daily average of COVID-19 cases in Chicago has more than doubled during the last week, according to city statistics. The positivity rate has leapt from 4.4% to 8.6%, also compared with a week ago. City officials have said they expect the positivity rate to continue growing.

Due to the surge in cases, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Tuesday that businesses including bars, restaurants and gyms will be required to see a negative test or proof of vaccination from people 5 years and older, which the city defines as two weeks beyond a second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson shot. On Thursday, Cook County said it would follow the city’s lead.

A sign is seen in the Begyle taproom in Chicago on Dec. 21, 2021. During a surge in COVID-19 cases, the Begyle taproom is temporarily closed until all staffers can be tested for the virus. Begyle is still selling orders to go.

A sign is seen in the Begyle taproom in Chicago on Dec. 21, 2021. During a surge in COVID-19 cases, the Begyle taproom is temporarily closed until all staffers can be tested for the virus. Begyle is still selling orders to go. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Neither mandate requires proof of a booster shot, although vaccines show waning protection over time and limited protection against the omicron variant. The mandates also do not apply to workers, who are subject instead to weekly negative tests.

On a city government webinar Wednesday to explain details of Chicago’s rule, Miguel Campos, supervisor of business compliance investigations for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said violators will be subject to fines and closures of at least one day or perhaps longer “for egregious situations.”

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The order, which he said will continue until the city is “through this omicron-driven surge,” does not apply to outdoor dining, he said.

Pat Doerr, managing director of the Hospitality Business Association of Chicago, a lobbying group that represents bars, restaurants and music venues, called the mandate “another major burden on Chicago’s hospitality industry” that puts business owners in a difficult position with customers. The mandate should have been paired with financial assistance to compensate for what he said will likely be “incredibly thankless work this winter.”

“Regardless of whether the vaccine mandate achieves (its) goal, it was profoundly disappointing additional city grants were not announced to assist the small businesses that now must implement this new city mandate,” Doerr said. “Not once — through indoor bans, through sharply reduced capacity, nor yet again as these spots are asked to become Chicago’s ‘vax bouncers’ — has across-the-board grant assistance been offered to them. It’s long overdue.”

Sam Toia, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Restaurant Association, did not address whether he supports the order, but urged compliance — and vaccinations.

“First and foremost, the Illinois Restaurant Association wants operators to be able to stay open and urges everyone to get vaccinated,” Toia said in a statement. “We cannot slide backward to shutdowns and capacity restrictions, which would be catastrophic for our industry — forcing operators to again lay off their team members and possibly close their doors for good.”

Toia said the association encourages “all diners to please lend their cooperation, respect and kindness to the employees working to comply with the new mandate during these challenging times.”

Some early returns are not encouraging.

Lincoln Square bakery Baker Miller, which has mandated proof of vaccination for indoor dining since August, announced this week it would require proof of a booster shot, because it lends better protection.

“We know there are people on each side of this issue, but we have based our decisions on science and safety ever since the pandemic began,” the bakery said in a social media post Monday.

Two days later, the bakery chose not to open for indoor service due to what it said was “a lot of hate and threats from the anti-vaccine crowd.”

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“We feel anxious about dealing with them if they decide to show up and harass our team,” the bakery said in a social media post Tuesday. “No, this doesn’t mean that they win and no it doesn’t mean we’re going to back away from our policy. But we have a lot of baking to do before Christmas and would rather spend our time focused on making sure your desserts are great as well as planning for the New Year.”

Baker Miller co-owner Dave Miller said in an interview he is keeping the bakery closed for dine-in service at least through Christmas due to threats by both vaccine opponents and the virus. He applauded the city’s mandate.

“The mandate sets precedent for us, levels the playing field and communicates that the city has our back when we choose safety,” he said.

Craig Gould receives his takeout order at Baker Miller in Chicago on Dec. 23, 2021.

Craig Gould receives his takeout order at Baker Miller in Chicago on Dec. 23, 2021. (Youngrae Kim/for the Chicago Tribune)

Some former skeptics of a vaccine mandate have been won over, including Mary Kay Tuzi, a second-generation co-owner of Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern in Old Town, who opposed the idea during summer due mostly to the mechanics of how it would work, she said. Proliferating cases changed her mind. But Tuzi, who said she is vaccinated and boosted, is still anxious about how to enforce the order.

“It’ll be a little stressful for staff,” she said. “They’ve heard horror stories at other restaurants about being confronted by customers who don’t want to be vaccinated. But they’re kind of looking forward to it, too, in a way, because they know everyone coming in will be vaccinated.”

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Tuzi said she expects challenges, such as figuring out who checks vaccine cards at the restaurant — hosts? servers? bartenders? — slowed service and potentially difficult customers. Diners lacking proof of vaccination will likely be redirected to carrying their food out or dining in Twin Anchors’ heated outdoor space, she said.

“We basically are going to have to wing it for a little while until we figure out the system that works for us,” she said. “If the public cooperates, it won’t be bad. If they give us a hard time, it’ll be a struggle.”

Michael Roper, owner of Hopleaf bar and restaurant in Andersonville, said he was planning to institute a vaccine mandate Jan. 1, and didn’t introduce one sooner because he didn’t want to be at a disadvantage versus competitors without such a requirement. He said he’s relieved the mandate will extend across the city, especially if it staves off an industry shutdown.

“We have to learn to live with COVID-19,” he said. “It is not going away. Vaccinated America need not destroy itself for the benefit of the unvaccinated. We need to stay open, and vaccinated customers will hopefully continue to come out. For most of us, closing again is simply not an option.”

Tracy Hurst, co-founder of Metropolitan Brewing, which has operated with a vaccination requirement since summer, said she’s glad the city has finally caught up after Lightfoot long expressed opposition to a mandate. The trick now, Hurst said, will be not to “give in to a false sense of security.”

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“When it comes to safety, we’re turning knobs here, not flipping switches,” she said. “Requiring vaccine status should be a layer on top of being diligent about masks as well as regular PCR testing. And now, with omicron threatening everything all over again, we’re recommending that our employees try to stay home as much as possible.”

But the upsides of mandating proof of vaccination — namely, putting customers and staff at ease — outweigh the negatives, Hurst said.

“The good news is, since the issue is so decisively political, the patrons who don’t wish to comply pretty much throw themselves out,” she said. “You’ll then see a one-star Google review, but hey, you kept your staff alive for one more day.”

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