By Josh Noel Chicago Tribune
After three months shuttered to the world, Chicago bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen for indoor service in late January at 25% capacity.
Three weeks later, the number was pushed to 40%. Two weeks after that, it rose again, to the 50% where it still stands.
Though a seeming majority of bars and restaurants across the Chicago area have welcomed diners and drinkers back inside, a significant number have stuck with the percentage of indoor diners that makes them most comfortable: zero.
The conversation about bars and restaurants through the pandemic has largely focused on the need to open as quickly and broadly as possible. But as Illinois continues to diagnose more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 per day, an untold number of holdouts haven’t budged from staying closed — and don’t plan to reopen their dining rooms for weeks, if not months.
“We just haven’t thought it was safe,” said Yoshi Yamada, co-owner and chef at modern Indian restaurant Superkhana International in Logan Square. “We’ve felt a responsibility to our staff, our families and our community to keep the dining room shut.”
Many restaurant owners and their high-profile advocates, such as the Illinois Restaurant Association, have argued that restaurants are highly regulated businesses that make them able to operate safely through the pandemic. Many of the businesses have needed to stay open to stay alive, their owners and advocates have said.
But as much as welcoming customers back inside the 77-seat Superkhana International would boost the bottom line, Yamada and his partner, Zeeshan Shah, have chosen to stay afloat with takeout orders.
“We think we’ll be able to limp to the point of reopening,” Yamada said.
“The key word is ‘limp,’” Shah said.
What will it take for Superkhana International to reopen? The answer is rooted in both business and public health.
Yamada and Shah said they want to sense the pandemic has truly been tamed to the extent that future shutdowns are off the table. A forced closure (and reopening) can cost a restaurant thousands of dollars, and led some to shutter completely during winter.
Yamada and Shah also don’t want to open before they’re sure diners feel safe eating out, guaranteeing the opening makes financial sense. They want to be sure that COVID-19 variants don’t spiral out of control. But above all else, they want vaccines for their staff.
Most Illinois restaurant workers aren’t eligible for a vaccine shot until March 29, and for those who receive the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it could take until May, at the soonest, for maximum immunity.
“Absent a fully vaccinated staff, I don’t understand the push (to reopen),” Yamada said.
Superkhana International will only reopen after staff are able to be fully vaccinated, its owners said. But even then, the restaurant will not rush; Yamada and Shah plan to relaunch indoor service by late summer or early fall.
Yamada and Shah said they are proceeding slowly because they’re concerned about the relationship between indoor dining and the spread of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees.
The federal agency says restaurants operating only as takeout and delivery businesses present the “lowest risk” of virus transmission. Indoor dining, even with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart, presents a “higher risk,” the CDC said. (The “highest risk” comes from indoor dining without restrictions, which is now possible in states that include Texas and Mississippi, but not Illinois.)
It’s difficult to pin down how many bars and restaurants have stayed closed for indoor service in and around Chicago, but they include Lula Cafe, Middle Brow Bungalow and Paulie Gee’s in Logan Square; Avondale’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken; Irving Park sandwich shop JT’s Genuine; and Edzo’s Burger Shop in Evanston. The chain of Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken restaurants has done the same.
Bars The Whistler, Sleeping Village, Best Intentions and Delilah’s also have yet to open indoors, along with breweries Off Color, Begyle, Dovetail, Half Acre, Solemn Oath, Marz Community Brewing and Hopewell.
Many of those businesses have forged alternate income streams to stay afloat, such as Delilah’s hosting virtual whiskey and wine tastings. Mike Miller, founder of the legendary 28-year-old Lincoln Park bar, said he has stayed closed “to err on the side of caution.”
“When my staff has been vaccinated, and more people in general have been vaccinated, and the numbers are really in decline, then we will open back up — probably (in) a few more months,” Miller said. “I wanted to avoid a roller coaster all along, and I definitely don’t want to open to a lesser Delilah’s experience.”
Bungalow, a pizzeria and bakery that’s also home to Middle Brow Brewing, has pivoted multiple times in the last year to avoid depending on indoor service. It added a store selling products that would keep the business alive — beer, bread, pizza kits, various food items, gardening supplies, records, books and even Christmas trees.
It hasn’t been open for indoor service since last March, and won’t do so until all staff is two weeks past vaccinations, said co-founder Pete Ternes. He hopes that’s by early summer.
Bungalow will launch patio service in the coming weeks before starting indoor service, which Ternes called “a slow walk” toward reestablishing the business that saw two-hour weekend waits before the pandemic arrived.
“We’re focused on getting things right and doing them safely, and one can only guarantee safety by inching, rather than leaping, forward,” Ternes said.
Ternes said he has been frustrated by much of the talk around restaurants during the pandemic, and by the conventional wisdom that businesses needed to reopen as quickly as possible. Through much of the pandemic, he said, he wanted more restrictions on the industry, rather than fewer. A harsher lockdown early on could have both allowed restaurants to reopen sooner and put COVID-19 in check, he said.
“The best advocacy for me as a restaurant owner is for this damn thing to go away,” he said.
Ternes said he finally came not to trust government to decide when bars and restaurants should be able to open due to the varying pressures officials face.
“We’ve seen really confused leadership, and I don’t think the confusion is over the moral question,” Ternes said. “It’s, ‘How do we balance all these people lobbying us?’ whether it’s the (Illinois Restaurant Association) or a small business desperate to open up. There’s natural confusion there I don’t envy.”
That left Bungalow to make its own calculations — and it hasn’t let a customer inside the business in more than a year. All ordering is online, and pickups happen on Bungalow’s patio.
“We had to take the decision-making into our own hands,” Ternes said. “We looked at trends and hoped we got it right, and the trends never made us comfortable enough to open.”
Zoe Schor, chef and owner of fried chicken and Americana restaurant Split-Rail, said she was concerned both about the pandemic and her employees needing to deal with uncooperative customers — a consistent gripe of industry workers during the pandemic — when deciding to keep the Humboldt Park restaurant closed for anything other than to-go sales.
“It just didn’t seem safe or fair or right or ethical to ask people in the midst of this pandemic, where we barely understand this virus and people who are asymptomatic can give it to you and kill you, to come back to work,” Schor said. “In my opinion, (the restaurant industry) should have stayed closed this entire time. No one needs to go out to eat.”
Schor said she doesn’t wholly buy the argument that restaurants could only survive by staying open for indoor service. While she believes it’s true for some, many would have stayed afloat with loans, grants and to-go business. Plus, she said, in an industry notorious for closures in the best of times, some wouldn’t have survived regardless of the pandemic.
“The reality is there are people who aren’t afraid of losing their business — they’re afraid of losing their lifestyles, their Teslas and their Range Rovers,” Schor said. “So your business closes? We closed our doors fully prepared never to reopen them. People are more important.”
However, Schor said, Split-Rail has been able to survive during the last year and eyes reopening for indoor service by June at the earliest, once her staff is vaccinated.
Yamada, of Superkhana International, has a bit more sympathy for restaurateurs opening for indoor seating, saying they “were in an extremely difficult situation, and especially restaurants owned by individuals — people whose dreams and finances are wrapped up in small businesses taking an enormous hit.”
“These places are in a position where they go out of business and the dream dies and a family doesn’t have a source of income,” he said. “It’s a very, very complicated position for people to be in.”
Shah said he’s “not as generous” and thinks there has been a degree of irresponsibility in opening for indoor service, especially before vaccine distribution becomes widely available.
“I do recognize that people have to do what they have to do to get by,” he said. “We’re barely getting by. But it feels better to us with safety in mind first. We talk about it a lot with our staff — everyone needs to feel safe and cared for.”
Original post: chicagotribune.com