On January 3rd, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced an ordinance that any individual 5 years of age or older would be required to show proof they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to dine indoors, wherever food or drinks are being served. After much debate and controversy published in the news, and complaints the IHCC staff has heard from some of its members and clients, we decided to host a roundtable this past January 31st with a few restaurants to discuss the repercussions of this mandate and how it’s affecting their businesses. Paulina Martinez from World Business Chicago, Laura Padilla from the Mayor’s Office department of Community Engagement, and Thomas Anderson from the Mayor’s Office department of Economic and Neighborhood Development, were present to listen to the concerns of these restaurants.
Christina Gonzalez, owner of Taqueria Los Comales in Little Village explained that this is a crisis on top of a crisis and that every day there are new challenges coming up. “We are a staple in the community and a place where people congregate in large groups,” she said.
One of the issues that Gonzalez has come across is welcoming out-of-towners who are not familiar with the ordinance. In addition, the restaurant was forced to spend more money on masks for people from out of town that come from places that do not require a mask to dine in a restaurant (Illinois is one of nine states that requires this). If guests are not vaccinated or are not carrying their vaccination cards and identifications, they must deny them service; consequently, restaurants lose business. Restaurants must also rely on their drive-thru and drive-up services, as well as delivery services. “It’s a difficult situation because we have to stay unbiased and adhere to the new ordinance and no one wants to work under these conditions,” she said.
Luis Vasquez, from the Red Barrel Restaurant in Archer Heights said that this has become a political move against the red and the blue, and those who show support and are against the mayor. His restaurant has lost about 60% of their staff, and he has had to pay 40% more to the staff that decided to stay. “I wish the mayor would lift the COVID vaccine mandate because it’s costing us a lot of business,” Vasquez said. He added that people often call to make a reservation for a large group but then realize that someone in their party is not vaccinated, so they are forced to cancel the reservation.
From Lalo’s on Maxwell in Pilsen, Alex Cabrera said he has had to call the police because people come into his restaurant intoxicated and his employees are afraid to ask for their vaccine cards. “People are getting aggressive when they are asked to show proof of vaccination and their IDs,” Cabrera added.
Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Jaime di Paulo emphasized that restaurants want to do the right thing, but the restaurant community is really suffering. There are only 9 states in the country asking for these cards and there should be some relaxing efforts. “When you ask for an ID, you are breaking a barrier and it has not been very friendly especially for the immigrant community,” di Paulo said. The biggest issue is asking people for an ID, which gives the perception that restaurant staff is “policing” guests. He shared that on one occasion, he visited a restaurant with his elderly mother, but she forgot to bring her vaccination card, forcing them to leave the restaurant. This is a scenario that is happening again and again all over the city because of this ordinance.
‘You are being heard’
“This feedback is extremely helpful and it’s important to raise this feedback. It’s important that your voices are being heard as we command this ordinance,” said Thomas Anderson with the department of Economic and Neighborhood Development. He said that the City continues to look at the policies and that they are grateful these restaurant owners are bringing these issues to light.
Personalizing all these issues will help the City Hall understand the problems that are arising in the community. He added that the Chicago Recovery Plan grants have helped alleviate the stress for small businesses and encouraged small businesses to visit the City of Chicago website to apply for community development grants. Unfortunately, even if these restaurants apply for these grants, the process could be very lengthy for them to receive any form of relief.
What do they suggest should be done?
Gonzalez suggests that the City should give more options, especially for guests from out of town. Restaurants are already understaffed. Gonzalez said her staff at Los Comales went down from 40 employees to just 15. She suggests that they lift the mandate and expand the list of acceptable requirements or give more options.
Di Paulo agreed that the restaurant community wants to help but the City needs to remove the ID requirement. Vasquez said that people are using the excuse of not being vaccinated to cancel contracts because they want everyone to attend the event. Gonzalez said her restaurant is losing 25% of their business because of this.
Vasquez agreed that vaccine cards are fine, but there’s no need to check IDs. The immigrant community does not have a proper form of identification, so this process is instilling fear in them. “You don’t get to ask for a vaccine card when you go shopping at the mall and I don’t think it’s fair to the restaurant community because germs are being spread everywhere,” Vasquez added.