CHICAGO (WLS) -- Chicago is lifting more restrictions on businesses during the pandemic with increased capacity for indoor dining.
Restaurants can now increase capacity to 50%, or 50 people, effective immediately.
Two weeks ago, Chicago expanded indoor dining to 40% capacity for restaurants and officials said they would reassess after two weeks.
"We have made incredible progress in recent weeks and months, and I thank our business community for their ongoing commitment to saving lives," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. "I am thrilled that we have reached 50% capacity, but I again call on all of our businesses and residents to double down on what works. We must remain diligent as we continue to move forward cautiously and responsibly."
Additionally, bars and restaurants can stay open until 1 a.m. and alcohol sales from liquor stores and other establishments with a Package Goods license can now continue until 11 p.m.
In addition to restaurants, fitness centers will be able to hold classes of up to 20 people and movie theatres and other performance venues will be able to go to 50 percent capacity or as many as 50 people.
BACP Commissioner Escareno outlines increased restaurant capacity
The increase means more than just a busier dining room at long-time Chicago rib spot, Twin Anchors.
"It's been so long since it's been like that, even having a couple extra people in here that I have to move outside feels crowded and feels strange," owner Gina Manrique said. "At 25% we were still in the red. We were at 40% close to breaking even, so I think at 50% we can finally start to see a profit."
With a simple divider down the middle of the room at Moe's Cantina in River North, they are able to double capacity in the big dining room. It's a long way from the pre-COVID days with people packed everywhere, but the owner is not complaining.
"I think everybody is happy just to be back in business," owner Sam Sanchez said. As the new board chairman for Illinois Restaurant Association, Sanchez said increasing restaurant and bar capacity to 50 percent or 50 people, and allowing them to stay open two hours later, could make a big difference for a lot of places.
At The Woodlawn restaurant on the South Side, it means they can bring more employees back to work.
"Great news. It will make a big difference here at the Woodlawn. It helps us maintain our staff and hire more staff," said owner Donnell Digby.
While pleased with the relaxed rules, the Illinois Restaurant Association is lobbying for more changes, including increasing the limit from 50 to 150 people in a room to accommodate large parties. They also want restaurant workers to have priority for getting vaccinated.
But restaurant owners and the mayor agree they want to stay open and hopefully return to normal eventually.
"I'd rather be slow and steady and continue to be open than throw open the gates to appease a certain segment and then our cases explode, see our percent of positivity explode, and then have to shut it down a third time. I don't want to do that," said Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
For some smaller places like the Garage Bar in Gladstone Park, the increased capacity rules make little difference because of social distancing - there's no room for more people. They are hoping for something a little more dramatic.
"Our capacity is pretty much the same. We can't have people standing and we don't have people moving around," said bartender Matt Moriarty.
The owners of The Garage said they are now looking forward to warmer weather so they can utilize their outdoor space, including a large roof deck.
"I don't understand it," said Zeeshan Shah, co-owner of Superkhana International. "I don't understand how you can put everybody at risk that way."
Shah never bothered re-opening his Logan Square restaurant to indoor dining. The risk to his staff with unmasked patrons and the cost of cyclical restrictions was just too high.
"There's a push to open and add more people to the dining room when there's no push for us to get vaccinations," Shah said.
As most restaurants re-enter the late night scene and extend service until 1 a.m., city regulators say they'll be out and watching closely.
"This expansion of capacity, cannot be an excuse to disregard the safety regulations," said Rosa Escareno, commissioner of Chicago's Dept. of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. "We will be going out there to ensure that large gatherings are not happening."
Some of those basic safety regulations include no more than six people at a table, spaced six feet apart. Patrons must continue to wear a mask while interacting with restaurant staff.