By Bob Uphues
Suburban Cook County restaurants and bars must close their doors to indoor dining and drinking effective at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 28, Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker announced Monday, after sustained increases in new COVID-19 cases in the county and elsewhere throughout the state.
In a press release issued Oct. 26, Pritzker announced that Region 10, "is the first region in Illinois to earn additional mitigations not because of its positivity rate alone, but because its positivity rate and its COVID-related hospitalizations have both seen a sustained increase over the last 10 days."
As of Monday, Region 10's positivity rate had jumped to 7.8 percent and had seen eight consecutive days of increases in test positivity and seven consecutive days of increased hospitalizations.
The spike in new cases means that no food or drink can be served indoors at bars and restaurants in suburban Cook County and all outside service must close by 11 p.m. Outside dining tables must be six feet apart and no standing or congregating either indoors or outdoors is allowed while waiting for a table.
Reservations are required for each party and multiple parties may not be seated at the same table.
Gaming parlors and casinos are allowed to remain open but are limited to 25 percent capacity and must follow mitigation protocols in place for bars and restaurants in terms of serving food and beverages indoors. Those places must also close by 11 p.m.
Frustrated business owners brace for impact
While local restaurateurs and bar owners may have sensed the inevitable with positivity rates creeping up for the past two months, they nonetheless must face the fallout of another dining room shutdown just as cold weather began to reduce the number of people willing to brave the elements to eat outside.
"Obviously, we've been watching it," said Dan Velcich, co-owner of Burger Antics in downtown Brookfield. "We told our employees two weeks ago to start saving their money, because if the dining room shuts down, we'll have to lay off some employees."
While some customers still opted to eat outdoors when temperatures plunged below 50 degrees, seating outside last weekend was light, said Velcich.
Velcich says Burger Antics remain open for curbside and takeout service, but they will be eliminating lunch service and their hours will be Thursday through Sunday from 3 to 9 p.m.
Scott Zimmer, owner of The Chew Chew and neighboring Sawmilly in downtown Riverside, expressed frustration at the latest shutdown, particularly after he invested thousands of dollars in the past several months to install a medical-grade air filtration system, including an ultraviolet light system that is able to disinfect the dining room air every 15 minutes.
"To our knowledge, the only buildings with better air-quality are scientific labs & operating rooms," Zimmer posted on The Chew Chew's Facebook page Monday afternoon. "Yet, under today's announcement we are deemed 'unsafe' while casinos & big box retailers remain open? We will patiently wait for the science, here."
While The Chew Chew does have a heated outdoor dining area, Zimmer told the Landmark that it would be open "weather permitting." The restaurant will focus on the takeout/curbside service that it successfully introduced during the first shutdown this spring.
"Despite the obvious emotions, we promise to continue our work and provide you a quality carry-out experience," Zimmer said on Facebook. "Our goal remains to keep everyone safe and the crew collecting a paycheck. We appreciate your support and understanding as we transition … yet again. We will continue to provide daily specials and full-menu service."
North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. said Oct. 26 that the village's establishment owners were pleading for a reprieve but that North Riverside had to follow the state's public health protocols.
"As it gets colder, people are forced to spend more time inside and I recognize that these measures are difficult, but remember they won't last forever," Hermanek said in a message sent to residents Monday. "Our compliance is key to getting this spike under control."
Some Brookfield bar owners went directly to elected officials on Oct. 26, pleading with trustees to throw them some sort of lifeline in the face of another shutdown.
"Indoor dining is a wash for us," said Loukia Giafis, co-owner of Little Owl Social Pub in downtown Brookfield. "It could be 10 days, it could be a month, we don't know. I don't expect you to fix all of our problems, but something is better than nothing."
Giafis suggested the village perhaps waiving sales taxes or forgiving liquor license fees, which are due for renewal soon, to help keep expenses down. Riverside waived liquor license fees this spring in the face of the first shutdown.
"Little cuts here or there, saving us a little on our liquor licenses, that may be what lets us move forward," Giafis said.
Stafa Amin, a manager from Sebastian's Ale and Whiskey House in downtown Brookfield, suggested that local establishments might seek restraining orders in court to prevent another shutdown and asked the village board for "guidance."
"If it wasn't for opening up the streets [on weekends for outdoor dining], we probably would have been done already," Amin said. "If you say you can't stay open, we're not going to stay open, but there is a huge chance that we might not ever open up again."
Local COVID cases keep rising
The governor's announcement regarding indoor dining and drinking at bars and restaurants came amid another week of, for the Landmark coverage area, high new COVID-19 case counts.
In Brookfield, 25 more residents tested positive for the virus for the week ending on the morning of Oct. 27 – the third straight week with 20 or more new cases. It's also the highest number of cases in Brookfield for any three-week period since the first cases arrived in March.
In all, 456 Brookfield residents have contracted the virus, with four people dying as a result.
Riverside matched its weekly high caseload of 18 for the second consecutive week, bringing its total number of cases to 252, while North Riverside saw its highest number of new COVID-19 cases in one week since late May.
There were 11 more people who tested positive for the virus in North Riverside for the seven-day period ending on the morning of Oct. 27, bringing the total number of cases in the village since March to 152.
Three North Riverside residents have died from COVID-19, while two have died in Riverside since Cook County started tracking those numbers in March.