Indoor dining set to reopen in Chicago, Baltimore as NYC, Los Angeles await answers

Baltimore resumed dining Friday as Chicago plans to reopen indoor dining.

Some cities allowing indoor dining again

For the first time since October, restaurant-goers in Chicago could legally dine indoors again as soon as Saturday to enjoy a meal while adhering to other COVID-19 safety precautions.

Chicago and Suburban Cook County entered Tier 2 of reopening within COVID-19 rules, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced Friday, which will pave the way for a return to indoor dining as soon as Saturday.

"If metrics continue to improve or are stable, regions 10 and 11 are on track to advance to Tier 1," the department said of the Chicago region.

The progress comes on the heels of an update from Chicago Public Health Department Commissioner Dr. Alison Arwady earlier this week who said that indoor dining would soon resume. Arwady said the city will enforce a four-person table limit, and a 25% overall capacity limit, along with mask-wearing and tables spaced apart at all restaurants and bars that serve food, as the state outlined in its mitigation response plan.

After three months of bans on indoor dining in the state, the Illinois Restaurant Association has continued to push for small businesses looking for ways to keep customers safe, while still protecting the industry from collapse.

In Baltimore, on-premise dining at restaurants resumed Friday after a six-week shutdown.

Mayor Brandon Scott announced restaurants would be allowed to serve both inside and outside at a limited capacity with a one-hour time limit.

New York City demands answers

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, told "Good Morning America" that "it's shocking" that restaurant owners are still serving customers curbside and takeout only as other cities start to welcome guests back.

"Why is indoor dining closed in New York City when it's open at 50% indoor occupancy around the rest of the state where the infection and hospitalization rates are higher?," he continued.

Last Thursday, WABC New York reported that indoor dining was allowed to resume in some orange zones around the state after a court decision ruled against Gov. Andrew Cuomo's virus restrictions.

Even if eateries in the five boroughs had the "equitable standards" as Rigie described, he said restaurant operators would know what has to happen in order to resume operating indoors. "What are the metrics? People need to make decisions and they've been provided no information ... There's so much uncertainty," he said.

Rigie also called on the Biden administration and Congress to work to pass the Restaurant Act, part of the revitalization fund that would help small business owners pay for missed rent, payroll, vendor expenses and more that have piled up over the past 11 months.

"It's an impossible situation. This industry that is so vital to the economic and social fabric of NYC is being crushed," he said. "We've stepped up to serve our neighbors and front-line workers -- while we're in the midst of our own crisis -- to be treated with disregard is shameful, but it's not too late for all levels of government to step up and provide restaurants and workers the support they need to give them a fighting chance of survival."

Rigie added that there are regular conversations and advocacy to save NYC restaurants, "but there is not a metric system to make these determinations, so until something is concrete and publicly announced, no one knows."

"It could happen tomorrow or it could be another two months," he said before indoor dining is back on the table.

The Restaurants Act, city and state grants to help with cashflow, legislation and prioritizing vaccinations for essential restaurant workers are all among other things that could help the hard-hit industry, Rigie explained.

Los Angeles County restaurants limp along

On Nov. 19, 2020, LA County ceased all on-site dining for a second time amid the pandemic due to Gov. Gavin Newsom's stay-at-home order and the broader regional order that he signed on Dec. 3, 2020.

"We ask that you immediately reclassify the restaurant industry as critical infrastructure before more damage is done,'' the letter said. "As it is becoming obvious to Californians, these essential businesses do more than simply provide a place to eat. Restaurants are active participants in local neighborhoods, providing meals to senior citizens and working with food banks to feed families struggling to put food on their tables."

What's next for the industry amid uncertainty

Sean Kennedy, executive vice president for Public Affairs of the National Restaurant Association wrote to congressional leaders that "more than 500,000 restaurants of every business type -- are in an economic free fall."

"For every month that passes without a solution from Congress, thousands of more restaurants will close their doors for good," he said in the letter last month.

Independent restaurants alone account for the employment of 16 million Americans, according to the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

Until more questions are answered, the aforementioned group that has continually fought for owners, chefs, line cooks, porters and other employees that make up the second-largest private industry in the U.S., has hailed the Paycheck Protection Program as a valuable step toward recovery,

Before his inauguration, Biden unveiled his economic plan last week calling for direct aid for restaurants. He also vowed to work with Congress in order to provide support to help the hospitality industry to survive.