Naperville mayor on COVID-19 restrictions: 'Restaurant owners know how to safely operate.'
An indoor dining ban and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts have pushed Naperville-area bars and restaurants to their breaking point, local leaders say, leaving the community grappling over how to slow a surge in cases while also keeping businesses afloat.
Friday marked two weeks since the tighter restrictions took effect in DuPage, Will, Kane and Kankakee counties, requiring bars and restaurants to close at 11 p.m. and limiting social gatherings to 25 people or 25% of a facility's capacity. But test positivity rates and hospital admissions have continued to rise exponentially in those two public health regions.
There's no doubt mitigation efforts are needed to curb the rapid increase in cases, Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said during a liquor commission meeting Thursday. But he questioned how much of the burden should fall on restaurateurs and small business owners who already have been struggling to keep their doors open.
"I don't think there is a simple answer," Chirico said. "Let's do everything we can to keep our residents, ourselves and our families safe, but at the same time, I think the general belief is we need to try to give these businesses a fighting chance to stay in business."
Chirico reiterated that message last week in a letter urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to reopen area establishments for indoor service. The mitigation strategy has a devastating financial impact on business owners, whose ability to shift gears and implement new protocols has been "nothing short of heroic," he said.
"Restaurant owners know how to safely operate. They have diligently been working at this effort for over seven months," Chirico wrote. "The sad truth is, however, that many of these small businesses did not survive the first ban on indoor dining and many more will not survive this one."
Studies have shown adults who test positive for COVID-19 are more likely to report dining at a restaurant or going to a bar or coffee shop before becoming sick than report participating in other activities where the virus spreads. DuPage County Health Department officials said transmission can occur at higher levels inside establishments due to tighter spaces, a lack of physical distancing, and the removal of masks for eating and drinking.
But Chirico said contact tracing data does not indicate bars or restaurants have been a significant source of transmission in the region. A more concerning environment is a social gathering inside someone's home where mitigation rules are not imposed, he said.
City leaders communicate daily with Edward-Elmhurst Health officials about the system's recent rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations, Chirico said. Edward Hospital was treating 75 inpatients with confirmed cases as of Friday morning, with two deaths reported in the 24 hours prior. A week earlier, the Naperville hospital had been treating 51 patients.
"Everyone is trying to weigh the balance between long-term economic disaster and the short-term devastation of having these high numbers of COVID," said Pam Davis, a Naperville liquor commission member and former CEO of Edward-Elmhurst Health.
Business owners have been adapting on the fly, developing new delivery services and creating outdoor dining areas more conducive to the impending cold weather, said Christine Jeffries, president of the Naperville Development Partnership.
Naperville also has tried to ease the burden by enacting several executive orders and implementing a six-month waiver of some liquor and tobacco license fees -- measures that "have really gone a long way to help our restaurants," she said.
In a survey conducted by the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, about two-thirds of responding bars and restaurants said opening at 25% capacity would not be a viable option, and 89% reported a lack of a sustainable outdoor seating plan. Half the participating businesses indicated they have five months or less of operating reserves should the restrictions continue.
The survey sample size was small but indicative of the industry as a whole, officials said.
"This is heartbreaking for our businesses. This is heartbreaking for so many families who have lost someone to this disease. This is a lose-lose pandemic," chamber President and CEO Kaylin Risvold said in a statement. "We want to work together to save both lives and livelihoods."