Hakim Lee, co-owner of Dr. Bird’s Jamaican Patty Shack in Wicker Park, sees the city’s new indoor vaccine mandate as a “double bogey” for Chicago’s restaurant industry.

Lee, speaking with the TRiiBE on Jan. 11, says he fights the reality of obeying the mandate during the slow revenue period that most bars and restaurants experience after the holiday season. For some establishments, the slow season could last until Valentine’s Day or even up to late March.

It’s been three weeks since Chicago instituted a city-wide vaccine mandate requiring “individuals age 5 and older show proof of vaccination to dine indoors, visit gyms, or enjoy entertainment venues where food or drink are being served.” Since Jan. 3. all bars, restaurants and fitness centers have been required to check the vaccination status of their patrons. Mayor Lori Lightfoot enacted this mandate in response to the omicron variant and the associated surge of new COVID-19 cases.

When the mayor announced the new mandate on Dec. 21 last year, the city averaged 1,776 confirmed COVID-19 cases a day, according to data from the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). This was the highest daily average since December 2020, nearly a year previous. 

As of Jan. 20, the city was averaging 2,819 COVID-19 cases a day, down 48 percent from a high last week of 5,412, according to recent data from CDPH.

Last week, CDPH commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city had passed the peak of the COVID-19 surge caused by the omicron variant. COVID-19 cases are starting to trend downwards, but they have yet to reach pre-December levels.

For Black bar and restaurant owners, however, these last few weeks have been concerning because of the new rule that’s gone into effect during the annual slow season.

“I hope that the mandates are a short-term fix or short-term policy as opposed to long-term because there’s already so much stuff that you have to contend with,” said Dr. Bird’s Lee. 

MaryAnn Marsh, co-owner of the Park Supper Club, M Lounge, and Persona Lounge, doesn’t see it in the same way as Lee. 

“Frankly, [Lightfoot] couldn’t have instated the mandate at a better time. January is typically very slow,” she said. “It’s a hard time for restaurants and bars alike. We’re recovering from, hopefully, what’s been a great December holiday season. If you’re smart, you’ve stored up for the winter, and things don’t pick up again until Valentine’s Day. So to see this mandate go on Jan. 3, as opposed to Feb. 14, it was good overall for business because this is a slow time anyway.” 

Lightfoot has said that the mandate will be in effect until “the city of Chicago is through this omicron-driven surge and the risk of overwhelming hospital capacity has passed.”

“Even though the vaccine mandate is a little hard to implement, it’s better than going back to social distancing between tables or [operating at] 50% capacity. That would be the death of the hospitality industry in the city of Chicago and the county of Cook,” said Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Dr. Bird’s Jamaican Patty Shack in Wicker Park. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE
“I hope that the mandates are a short-term fix or short-term policy as opposed to long-term because there's already so much stuff that you have to contend with,” said Dr. Bird’s co-owner Hakim Lee. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

The TRiiBE reached out to Black bar and restaurant owners across the city over the last two weeks to get a feel for how they’re adapting to the vaccine mandate and what, if any, challenges have come from it. 

Lee is a newbie to Chicago’s restaurant scene. He and his brother Changa operate Dr. Bird’s at 1215 N Milwaukee Ave, in Wicker Park. Dr. Bird’s opened up shop last summer as the Delta variant touched down and began to spread. The business did see a slow down in revenue at that time. 

Before opening their doors last year, the Lee’s faced several hurdles. They signed the lease for their restaurant in late 2019, and then COVID-19 hit. On March 16, 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered bars and restaurants in the state to close for two weeks. Delivery, takeout, and carryout were allowed, but customers weren’t allowed inside. The pandemic would drastically slow down renovations and construction for the restaurant. Things weren’t complete until May 2021. 

With the mandate in place, fewer people are dining in, and takeout orders are smaller, Lee told the TRiiBE on Jan. 11.  

“When people dine in, they spend more [money]. They get different drinks, their ticket sizes are larger, and they may come in with a group of people and so forth. With the takeout [orders], they’re typically smaller ticket sizes,” Lee said. 

What’s also been challenging for Lee has been ensuring that his unvaccinated employees are testing weekly. There are two testing centers near Dr. Bird’s where employees can get tested, and after they get their results, they show them to Lee. 

Under the mandate, employees who work in bars and restaurants and other indoor venues such as fitness centers or where food or drinks are served must present proof of vaccination to their employer or get tested weekly. 

Under Chicago’s new proof of vaccination mandate, businesses must also display signage in their establishment explaining the complete vaccination requirement for patrons and employees. Companies found not complying with the new order can be fined between $2,000 and $10,000 for each incidence of non-compliance. 

Since the mandate went into effect, the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (DBACP) has issued 32 citations to 16 businesses for not complying with the mandate.

Like Lee, Darnell Reed, a chef and the owner of Luella’s Southern Kitchen in Lincoln Square, is also concerned about how the mandate will impact his business. Still, he says since the start of the pandemic, he’s found ways to adjust around the city’s different reopening phases.

Reed and his staff typically take a holiday break for the first two weeks in January and reopen in mid-January. Luella’s reopened this year on Jan. 15. The time off provided Reed with some much-needed time to strategize and adjust to the new mandate and examine how other restaurants managed it. He doesn’t believe that he’ll see an increase in business per se but does wonder if having the mandate in place will allow people to feel safer while dining out. 

“Our only hope will be maybe people will feel like “hey, it’s safer. I can go eat, and feel like when I walk into this restaurant there’s less chance I’m going to catch COVID-19 in this restaurant because I know everyone in here is vaccinated maybe,” Reed told the TRiiBE on Jan. 5.

Luella’s Southern Kitchen in Lincoln Square. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE
Darnell Reed, a chef and the owner of Luella’s Southern Kitchen is also concerned about how the mandate will impact his business. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

Takeout has become more popular at restaurants since the start of the pandemic. Before closing for their holiday break, the last busiest day at Luella’s in 2021 was Thanksgiving. Luella’s had a whole house of people dining in and picking up pre-ordered meals from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. 

The Saturday before Christmas was also busy. The restaurant prepared meal kits for patrons to pick up and purchase in-store. Customers just needed to reheat the food.  Reed is considering expanding this model to offset the number of people dining in the restaurant. Luella’s already ships popcorn across the US, and Reed is looking into doing the same with meal kits. 

At M Lounge, a small intimate lounge located in the South Loop that holds about 75 people, Marsh has seen smaller crowds since the mandate started. 

“We’ve seen a dampening effect on our attendance, but those who come are very happy they feel comfortable knowing that everyone there has been vaccinated. And even though the crowds are lighter, I would say that it’s impacted our business, but not in such a way that would make us argue against it,” Marsh told the TRiiBE on Jan. 18.  “I feel that we would probably have a lot less business if the mandate hadn’t gone into effect if that makes sense.”

Catering to clientele aged 30 and over, Marsh’s M Lounge, 1520 S. Wabash, serves a mature demographic. On the other hand, as co-owner of Persona Lounge, which caters to a millennial audience, Marsh’s noticed that the group is more hesitant to show vaccine cards at the door. 

On Dec. 27, 2021, Persona announced on its Instagram page that it will be closing after the new year, but Marsh said the nightclub will reopen to the public soon.

“We’ve had some trouble at the door with people showing the vaccine cards but not wanting to show their ID. I believe that we’re probably going to have a tougher time of it at Persona, likely because it is a more compromising space. It holds 250 people,” Marsh explained. “So it’s very difficult to ensure that 250 people are going to feel comfortable if some people are arguing at the door [or] scuffling with the doorman.”

As of Jan. 19, only 58 percent of Black Chicagoans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to recent data from the CDPH

The COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal on all businesses. According to an August 2021 Time Out Chicago news report, there were about 68 bars and restaurants that closed permanently in Chicago. Additionally, there is a nationwide staffing shortage, according to a 2021 report from the National Restaurant Association. 

However, it’s unclear how many restaurants and bars have closed in Chicago since the pandemic’s start, let alone how many Black-owned restaurants and bars have shuttered, because the DBACP — which issues business licenses — doesn’t maintain a list of restaurant closures. The department also cannot “legally capture the demographics of business owners,” DBACP spokesperson wrote in an email to the TRiiBE on Jan. 20. 

“It would make things a little bit smoother if businesses were listed demographically, and it would help us to know how many businesses we need to increase as far as minorities or Black businesses in that particular area,” said Siri Hibbler, CEO, and founder of the Cook County Black Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce, and the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce. 

Since 2020, Hibbler and her staff are doing what they say has never been done — gathering accurate representational data on Black-owned businesses statewide. They have a target date for August to release their findings.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.