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Illinois restaurants want workers vaccinated ASAP
Meanwhile, the city of Chicago is easing its indoor dining restrictions today.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021
Crain's Chicago Business
by Ally Marotti

The Illinois Restaurant Association asked Gov. J.B. Pritzker to make restaurant workers eligible now for COVID-19 vaccines, more than a month sooner than currently scheduled.

The association sent Pritzker a letter last week arguing that restaurants are “a vital and essential” part of the way people are fed, and deserve quicker access to the vaccine. (Read the letter below.)


Meanwhile, because of "significant progress in the fight against the COVID-19 virus," the city is easing its indoor dining restrictions today. Bars, restaurants and events will offer indoor service at 40 percent capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer. Chicago recorded fewer than 400 new COVID-19 cases per day over the last three days, and its percent positivity is now 3.6 percent. See the latest COVID figures for the city and state in the charts below.

“In recent days, we have made incredible progress in the ongoing effort to save lives and defeat this deadly virus,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a release. “I am thrilled that we have made enough headway to cautiously ease more regulations, but I once again want to remind all our businesses and residents that we are not out of the woods yet. Only by committing to what we know works will we be able to continue moving forward carefully and responsibly.”

Restaurant workers are slated to become eligible in Phase 1C of Illinois’ rollout plan, expected to start in late March. Phase 1B is underway and includes front-line essential workers such as teachers, manufacturing workers, inmates, grocery store workers and more.

Sam Toia, president and CEO of the restaurant association, wants restaurant workers added to that phase. He said they are essential, just like those who work in grocery stores. He said restaurant operators have reached out to the association, which represented more than 25,000 restaurants and food service outlets pre-pandemic, in hopes of increasing the priority of their workers in the vaccine rollout.

The federal government’s vaccine supply will remain limited until production ramps up, said Jordan Abudayyeh, spokeswoman for Pritzker.

“The governor understands the frustration of those who are eager to get vaccinated, but federal guidance is clear that it is vital to protect our most medically vulnerable because they are at the greatest risk of severe illness and death,” she said in a statement. “The state is encouraged by the Biden administration’s commitment to ramp up vaccine distribution . . . and we are eager to expand the pool of people who qualify for vaccination as soon as possible.”

The state is roughly two months in to its vaccine rollout, and demand far outpaces supply. Scheduling vaccine appointments has been tricky at best and infuriating for many.

Toia said he worries about how long restaurant workers will have to wait even after they become eligible. “We’re still a good four, five weeks away” from eligibility, he said. “One of our concerns is, Will we be able to start scheduling appointments at the end of March?”

Restaurants throughout the state were closed for indoor dining for almost three months in an effort to quell additional outbreaks throughout the late fall and early winter. Many counties were able to reopen indoor dining at limited capacity in January.

“We want to make sure our workers are covered and there’s not any type of way that they could become ill,” said Michael Olszewski, owner of Yugen in the West Loop. “We want to have them vaccinated because they’re dealing with the public. It’s an essential part of our economy.”

The fine-dining restaurant features Japanese cuisine. It was open for takeout and delivery throughout the indoor dining shutdown and has implemented other new measures during the pandemic. It has a patio, and converted an area that used to be used for drinks and small bites into the grab-and-go spot.

Yugen has also put COVID safety measures in place, such as mask mandates and temperature checks. Olszewski said 32 employees are back at work, and all of them want the vaccine.

A reprioritization of who is eligible is not unprecedented. Last week Pritzker announced that those with underlying conditions would become eligible for a vaccine Feb. 25. Previously, that group was in Phase 1C. The move pushed up their eligibility by a month.

But Chicago, Cook County and other jurisdictions quickly said they would not follow suit, noting that there aren’t enough doses coming in to expand eligibility.

Illinois gets its vaccine doses from the federal government, then divvies them up to county health departments. Chicago gets a separate allotment from the federal government.

More than 356,600 doses have been administered in Chicago. Illinois has administered more than 1.8 million doses.

Chicago’s indoor dining capacity could increase to 50 percent in as little as two weeks, if all the required COVID metrics stay at their current risk levels. In addition to capacity limits, Chicago bars and restaurants currently must stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m., close for indoor service at midnight and limit table sizes to six people.

A.D. Quig contributed.


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