FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar, a farm-to-table restaurant located in the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, opened its doors in July 2020 with open patio seating and a dining room accommodating about 32 guests at 25 percent capacity. The sneeze guards, sanitizing stations, and six-foot social distancing soon followed.
“It has been challenging, with the many changes, following both state and city regulations,” said Zyren Posadas, Senior Food & Beverage Manager. “We are adapting constantly.”
Following Governor Pritzker’s order in late October, FireLake closed their indoor dining room, built plastic coverings for their outdoor patio, and added more heat lamps for customer comfort.
“Luckily, the weather has been good to us,” Posadas pointed out, but “once it begins to snow and temperature drops, we’ll put another plan in place. Hopefully, we’ll be able to open up inside by then.”
The restaurant has also expanded into takeout and offers curbside pickup. Posada credited new technology such as online ordering as important to these changes.
Ever Restaurant, a fine-dining eatery created by Michelin-starred chef Curtis Duffy and restauranteur Michael Muser, faced challenges even before opening. Muser described construction as “a nightmare from the get-go,” thanks to the pandemic.
With any new construction, there are many convergent tasks – such as plasterers working on walls as plumbers install pipes – but with COVID-19, they could not be in the same room. Getting supplies was a challenge, too, says Muser, due to disrupted supply lines and other issues. But they opened their doors on July 28.
Muser says the 25 percent indoor capacity was difficult, but they worked through it and found equilibrium.
“Curtis and I want to make our city super proud,” said Muser. “We want to let people know the City of Chicago has a strong enough vibrant food community so restaurants can be beacons of hospitality.”
The most recent shutdown of indoor spaces has been brutal, Muser noted. The restaurant has also expanded into takeout.
“We’re blessed to have a loyal following to support us when we can,” he said, but the changes are “not our business model.”
While the restaurant tried to keep its employees – many of whom moved from out-of-state to work at Ever – Muser said the restaurant had to furlough much of its staff. He is hoping the restrictions will be lifted soon, and restaurants can have 25 percent indoor capacity again.
The restaurant industry has been hurt deeply by the pandemic. The National Restaurant Association predicted in September that the industry is on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of 2020. Their report noted that one in six restaurants has closed either permanently or for a long time.
“A significant amount of damage has already been done,” said Muser.
Indoor dining higher risk, says epidemiologist
The best course of action to get restaurants back in business is tricky. Indoor dining is a higher-risk activity, according to Katie Suleta, an epidemiologist with a background in infectious diseases.
“I feel bad for restaurants…but with a disease that spreads via respiratory droplets, eating around others is always going to be risky because you have to expose your mouth,” explained Suleta.
Restaurant owners have been asking Governor Pritzker to allow them to open up to 20 percent in January. Recent research suggests that 20 percent is the “sweet spot” for minimizing risk, but it won’t eliminate transmission, says Suleta.
It is “a way to allow the economy and work to continue in some capacity while still keeping infections to a manageable level,” she explains. “That really only works if you have a robust testing and contact tracing system in place, which is something that most places don’t have. Everyone needs to be complying with public health measures that are specifically put into place to make something like this safer.”
With wider spread, dissemination of the vaccine, and the stimulus bill, restaurants will hopefully get some relief from the coronavirus and be able to function at capacity again. Until then, they will continue to respond as best they can to changing state and city guidelines.
“It’s not too late to get creative,” Posadas of FireLake said. “We work with cards that we’re dealt with.”
This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.