People will undoubtedly be out in these Chicago streets next week to ring in the new 2022 year —pandemic or not. However, a new set of COVID-19 regulations announced this week by Mayor Lori Lightfoot could hurt Black Chicago’s nightlife, restaurants and bars, if not given adequate support from city officials. 

Starting on Jan. 3, 2022, Chicagoans ages 5 years and older must show proof of vaccination to enter city restaurants, bars, gyms, and other entertainment and recreation venues serving food or drinks.

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This new mandate comes as the city is seeing a surge in new confirmed COVID-19 cases with the rise of the omicron variant. In the last week, Chicago’s test positivity rate has increased from 4.1 percent to 7.3 percent. As of Dec. 21, Chicago is currently averaging 1,776 confirmed COVID-19 cases a day, up by 79 percent from last week, according to recent data from the Chicago Department of Public Health. That’s the highest daily average since December 2020.

The TRiiBE reached out to Black bar and restaurant owners, and people of color who work in Black Chicago’s events and nightlife scene, to get their take on how the city’s new COVID-19 regulations will impact the local industry. 

While most agree that the mandate is necessary, there are concerns: will the new COVID-19 mandate come with support and resources from the city to ensure Black-owned businesses can stay afloat this time around?

“I find it interesting that [the COVID-19 mandate] goes into effect after New Year’s Eve, which is one of the busiest nights in nightlife,” said Ashley De la Torre, a DJ from Pilsen who has performed at venues across the city, such as the Sleeping Village, Emporium, and this year’s controversial Lollapalooza music festival. “It’s kind of become the personal responsibility of bars and organizers to cancel versus the city, and I just don’t feel like that’s the best move.”

When Chicago entered Phase 5 of its COVID-19 reopening plan on June 11, capacity limits and mask mandates for businesses were lifted. However, people were required to wear masks in certain settings, such as schools, health care facilities and on public transit. At the time, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the state of Illinois, vaccinated people were no longer required to wear masks in most other settings and unvaccinated people were asked to still wear masks in all indoor settings. Businesses were encouraged to post signage recommending unvaccinated patrons wear masks. 

In August, the city updated its guidance for large-scale events, requiring mask wearing for all indoor public settings regardless of vaccination status and proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within a 72-hour period. 

But, according to De la Torre, not all Chicago venues have been strict with adhering to health and safety protocols. For example, some venues that she’s deejayed at haven’t been consistent with checking vaccination cards or negative COVID tests. 

Although she’s fully vaccinated, De la Torre tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 17. She and a few friends gathered for her birthday last week. Of the seven friends at the party, four tested positive for COVID. Everyone in attendance was fully vaccinated. She said her symptoms were similar to what you’d experience with a cold: body aches, congestion, and fatigue. 

“It’s something we should have been doing from before things kind of got outrageous,” De la Torre said about Chicago’s new COVID-19 regulations. “I do feel like, once the majority of the population got vaccinated, there should have been more emphasis on ensuring that everyone there is vaccinated or [has a] negative test.” 

Sigma Chris, an event planner and curator in Chicago, believes the city’s proof of vaccination mandate is in the best interest of public health and safety, but he feels that it’s not enough to combat the virus.

He isn’t opposed to another lockdown, but only if it comes with financial assistance for business owners from the government. On Dec. 23, Mayor Lightfoot’s office announced a new Chicago Recovery Plan community development grants for entrepreneurs, small businesses and developers. The deadline for the first round of applications is Jan. 22, followed by a second-round deadline on March 10. The grants are part of a $1.2 billion equitable economic recovery strategy, Lightfoot’s office said.

“Businesses need relief. There needs to be a moratorium on rent for businesses or mortgages like all that. They didn’t do that the first time, and that’s why we’re here,” Sigma Chris said.

“People had to get outside. People had to continue their business. If the government would have just put the proper support in place. I think we’d be in a better space,” he added.

When the city’s new COVID-19 mandate begins on Jan. 3, it’ll also be the start of the slow season for the restaurant industry. Typically between January and February, some restaurants experience fewer patrons. For some eateries, the slow season can last through March, said LeQoinne Rice, owner of a Black-owned restaurant and bar in Logan Square called The Duplex.

Rice wasn’t surprised to hear Lightfoot’s announcement but said the new COVID-19 rules are a minor setback for his restaurant, which has just found its groove again after opening in summer 2021. 

“The system that we use will still allow us to still flourish amongst [the mandate], Rice said.

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He’s referring to Toast POS, a point-of-sale and management system that helps restaurants efficiently accept and track food orders digitally. When customers come to dine at The Duplex, they scan a QR code for the menu and place their orders using their own mobile devices. Toast POS, he explained, takes the pressure off servers. And, with Toast POS in place, he doesn’t need to have a full staff on shift. 

“The fact that the city is now mandating [proof of vaccination] means that all the restaurants are kind of on the same page,” Rice said. 

But not every restaurant and bar has the financial resources and technological savvy to utilize software like Toast POS to enhance the customer service experience during the pandemic, especially when it comes to smaller mom-and-pop spots and Black-owned establishments. According to Afrotrak founder Mike Orie, many businesses are now using digital reservation platforms to accept RSVPs and communicate with patrons ahead of their reservations.

Under Chicago’s new proof of vaccination mandate, beginning Jan. 3, businesses are required to display signage in their establishment explaining the full vaccination requirement for patrons and employees.

Without using a digital reservation platform, Orie said it could be more challenging to figure out a front-door system to figure out vaccination status, or it could be challenging to turn away a patron who said they forgot to bring their vaccination card.

“But when you have these [digital reservations] systems in place, you have a way to communicate with these people on a daily basis as they’re making reservations,” he added. 

According to Eldridge Williams, co-owner of the Delta restaurant and cocktail bar in Wicker Park, the costs for restaurants and nightlife establishments to update their internal systems to efficiently adhere to the new mandate can be high. 

Now, with the mandate, businesses may need to hire more staff to be positions at the front door to check vaccination cards, Williams explained. 

“I think it’s going to be difficult. They’re going to have to spend extra money on staffing, and it’s just gonna cause a ripple in how they do business with this extra step of service,” Williams said. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the restaurant industry has been experiencing staff shortages nationwide and in Chicago.

“Some places don’t have that don’t have those capabilities, and I think it’s going to be a bit of a struggle for them to implement these new procedures,” Williams said.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.