OPINION: Chicago restaurants should not raise indoor capacity


Eric Henry

Some streets that have closed to expand space for outdoor restaurant seating.

On October 21, Chicago had its highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths on a single day since June with 4,342 new cases and 69 deaths. Now more than ever, we need to be taking the pandemic seriously. As much as we might be tired of it, the numbers are only going up, and staying home is better than thousands dying, right?

So why are there so many people posting pictures on Instagram from a crowded restaurant where they just ate dinner with a group of friends like nothing is wrong?

Probably because on October 1, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot eased restrictions on indoor capacity for Chicago restaurants from 25 percent capacity to 40 percent capacity.

“The Mayor has a tough job in that she has to balance the economic needs against public health. At times these seem to be in opposition,” said Dr. Craig Klugman, a bioethicist and medical anthropologist at DePaul.

He said that from a purely public health perspective, opening up is the wrong thing to do, and we should be going back to earlier phases.

“Smaller limits on gatherings, mandatory mask-wearing, and encouraging people to say home unless essential to leave,” Klugman said.

Lightfoot often urges Chicagoans to be safe on her Twitter account, saying to stay six feet apart and not gather in small groups as two thirds of people who get Covid-19 get it from someone they know. These tweets can seem disingenuous when the regulations being lifted directly contradict those statements by encouraging gathering in close proximity without masks in indoor restaurants.

Mayor Lightfoot also went back this week to put a curfew in place so that restaurants and bars must stop serving people at 9 p.m. and all customers must leave by 10 p.m. This is too little too late, it would be much more beneficial to public health to go back to earlier phases and prohibit indoor dining.

“Our inability to control the pandemic early is resulting in these flare-ups that I suspect will get worse over at least the next few weeks,” said Dr. Philip Funk, a DePaul professor of biological sciences. “If you think about the social aspects of going to a restaurant it makes sense that they would be problematic. While eating you will be unmasked, talking to those at your table, while the waitstaff circulate around the table.”

DePaul student and current Chicago restaurant worker Ryn Weldon said that it’s hard for her to feel safe right now.
“It would take forever to explain how the safety requirements fail to protect servers,” Weldon said.

The RESTAURANTS Act was passed in the House recently, and if passed in the Senate, there will be more government funding for the food industry — but Weldon is still worried.

“At the end of the day, restaurant workers are an extremely vulnerable population,” she said. “We don’t have healthcare, we don’t have job security, we are not unionized, we rely on tips so basically we rely on being face to face with maskless people in order to pay our bills.”

So, what should we be doing differently?

“Being in a single place with the same people for the next few months is the best strategy,” said DePaul associate professor in nursing Dr. Kim Amer. “Even though it is disappointing and disheartening to think about sheltering in place again, the benefit is saving thousands of lives.”

She also says that if you do need to go out, wear a good mask and practice extreme caution.
“Use a mask that is thick enough that you cannot blow out a candle when you are wearing it,”

she said. “Wear a mask when outside your home, wash your hands every time you come home or touch anything with potential contamination, and take care of your nutrition, sleep and exercise. You will be saving not only your life but your friends and families.”

While it may be easier at the moment to open up restaurants, whether for the economy or to relieve the stress of living in a pandemic by going out with friends, there is no doubt that prioritizing those over public health will cost lives. So next time you choose to be served instead of just ordering takeout, think about how many lives that night out is really worth.