Should you dine out in Chicago? Health experts weigh in with risks, and how to reduce them

Nevada closed bars in Las Vegas and Reno again due to an increase in local COVID-19 cases on Friday. On Monday Louisiana ceased indoor bar service statewide, while California ordered all restaurants and bars to stop indoor dining. These moves backward in reopening the economy are the latest in recent weeks across the country.

On Tuesday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he’s watching bars in the state as potential hot spots while known coronavirus case numbers rise. Wednesday morning Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said sternly in a press conference that she would not just stop the car and turn around, but make those who misbehave get out and walk back.

The setbacks are among the growing concerns just weeks after the city and state allowed restaurants and bars to reopen for limited indoor dining during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Early this month, Lightfoot threatened to close businesses for breaking social distancing rules. On Friday she tightened hours, requiring bars and restaurants to close by midnight. On Monday, the city made good on the mayor’s threat to shut down violators when Chicago closed Wise Owl in the West Loop for breaking coronavirus capacity rules, the first bar or restaurant violation closing in the city.

As restaurants and bars continue to reopen for indoor dining, while struggling to survive, the question for some customers remains: Should you dine out indoors? Guidelines from the city and state have been confusing at best, and conflicting at worst.

We spoke with four experts: an infectious diseases doctor, a professor of virology, an engineer who researches microbes on surfaces and a professor who studies airborne infectious disease transmission. Their answers ranged from it’s not necessarily a bad idea, to there’s no way to do it safely.

Here’s what the experts had to say, along with rules from the state and city. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Is it safe to dine inside restaurants or bars?

Dr. Emily Landon, infectious diseases doctor at The University of Chicago Medicine: “I do think it’s a leap to have indoor dining. That’s because there have been studies and papers written about clusters that have come from imprudent actions with indoor dining.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea to open indoor dining. It’s a lot safer now than it was even just a few weeks ago, and there may be a time in the future where it’s not safe anymore.”

Shelly Miller, professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder: “It’s very hard for you as a consumer to know whether the building you’re going into has provided that kind of ventilation appropriate for airborne disease control. It’s even hard for a restaurant owner to know whether the building they’re renting or based in has ventilation that’s been appropriately designed and if it’s working as it should.”

“If you go inside with lots of other people that are not wearing masks, and you don’t know what’s going on with the ventilation, you’re in probably a very high-risk situation.”

“It’s very worrisome.”

Vincent Racaniello, professor of virology at Columbia University in New York: “There’s no way you can do it safely, because you have to take your mask off to eat and drink. It is totally the weak point. There are other people around you. There’s air recirculating. I think it’s asking for disaster frankly.”

Do temperature checks help?

Landon: “Temperature checks are in large part security theater. They might catch a few people with a fever, especially if you’re looking at large groups of people in an area, but the reality is the majority of the spread of COVID is not happening because sick people are trying to be out and about doing stuff.”

“The actual spread of COVID is happening when you are the most contagious, which is 0.7 days before you develop symptoms. That means you are the most contagious you’re going to be before you even know you’re sick.”

“I don’t have a problem with temperature checks. If they’re part of a comprehensive plan, then great.”

What if you want to dine out indoors anyway?

Landon: “If you’re going to choose to eat in a restaurant, you want to make sure they have a policy about how they’re handling the COVID situation and preventing transmission in the restaurant.”

“You want to see evidence that they’re following the policy. It’s not good enough to have it written out on a website and then you show up and no one’s wearing a mask and the tables seem a little bit sketchy close.”

Miller: “ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) has done a very good job providing guidelines on how to best ventilate your buildings in the middle of this pandemic. There are certificates that say we follow public health guidelines so there needs to now be a certificate that says we follow ASHRAE guidelines.”

What about table spacing? Is 6 feet apart enough?

City, state and CDC guidelines repeatedly say to space tables 6 feet apart. Yet that leaves customers sitting as close as 2 feet apart when seated back to back.

Miller: “If you’re sitting back to back and you’re only 2 feet away, you’re at higher risk of being exposed. It’s inappropriate to put a table 6 feet from another table and expect people to be protected from exposure. The people need to be 6 feet apart not the tables.”

Do I need to wear my mask at the table?

In the city of Chicago, customers are required to wear masks when seated unless they’re eating or drinking, not just seated. Yet the city’s own messaging, in documents and press conferences, sometimes omits the detail of the need to keep masks on unless you’re eating or drinking. In practice, that means customers remove their mask as soon as they’re seated.

Miller: “You need to keep your mask on, especially while you’re laughing and talking and socializing, because all of those activities generate a lot more aerosols than when you’re just actually eating. It’s the vocalization and loudness that causes these particles to be generated and released from people.”

“The servers have quite a high risk,” she said. They’re wearing a mask, but chances are those are only 30% efficient. It’s a tragedy that the messaging isn’t clear.”

Miller is among 239 experts who signed an open letter claiming the coronavirus is airborne, which the WHO now acknowledges prompting the release of new precautions.

What if I get up to go to the restroom?

Wear your mask.

How are restaurants supposed to enforce the safety rules? What can they do if customers don’t comply?

Post signs and nominate a safety team leader.

Chicago guidelines say, “Visual signage throughout facilities regarding hygiene, social distancing, proper PPE and more.” Illinois guidance adds, “Consider nominating a staff person to become a COVID-19 safety team leader. Their responsibilities can include staff training and monitoring, as well as assisting patrons with their questions or issues.”

Restaurants and bars can ask customers who don’t comply to leave.

What about dining outdoors? Is that safe?

Racaniello: “I would look for a place where outdoor dining is somehow sheltered from foot traffic, because that’s increasing your risk again. The most important thing is that the restaurant spaces you not just 6 feet between tables, but 6 feet between people.”

What about takeout or delivery?

Erica Hartmann, assistant professor of civil environmental engineering at Northwestern University in Evanston: “Initially we were very, very concerned about disease conditions through touch, coronavirus on specific objects. Now as our understanding progresses, we’re starting to think that maybe there’s also a role of airborne transport, and we don’t know which of those two routes is more important.”

“When I get food for takeout, I wash my hands before I eat. It’s probably a little extra if you’re wiping down a bag or a box.”

What about testing of restaurant staff?

Racaniello: “If I had a restaurant, I would first test all employees every three days, then I would advertise that our employees are guaranteed negative. Three days is enough to know you’re not yet shedding. If you get infected the day of, or day after your test, you will most likely not transmit an infection before the next test.”

What about contact tracing?

Both the state and city say we have moved into phase four, because contact tracing is commonplace. The state says, “Contact tracing within 24 hours of diagnosis for more than 90% of cases.” That is currently false.

What do you do when things go wrong? What if things go really wrong, like a customer attack over wearing a mask?

Call your local authorities. In Chicago, call 311 if it’s not an emergency, or 911 if case of emergency. The department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection and the Chicago Police Department can enforce violations. Fines can range up to $10,000. Licenses can be revoked.


©2020 the Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.