With the rise in COVID cases, the arrival of the omicron variant, and no official guidance from the state or the city, Chicago restaurant owners have had to decide on their own how they want to proceed to operate their businesses at the height of the holiday season. Several have already shut down temporarily after employees have either caught or been exposed to the virus, while others have suspended indoor dining and pivoted (once again) to takeout and delivery only. Still, many others are merely requiring proof of vaccination from customers or nothing at all beyond the city mandate that indoor diners wear masks except while eating or drinking.
Baker Miller, a bakery and cafe in Lincoln Square, has chosen another path: owners Dave and Megan Miller announced in an Instagram post on December 20 that indoor dining will continue but diners will have to show proof of having a booster shot, in addition to the two first rounds of vaccination (or one complete round for those who received the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine). As far as Dave Miller knows, Baker Miller is the first restaurant in Chicago to enforce such a requirement.
“We can’t afford to close,” he says, explaining that the holiday season is Baker Miller’s busiest time. “We need the revenue to survive the winter. We had to decide what we think is safest. The studies seem to show that the booster seems to contain potential spread [of the virus].”
Baker Miller was among the first restaurants that required proof of vaccinations for customers although, Miller says, the restaurant lost business because of it. Miller came to the decision to require boosters after reading scientific studies that, he says, indicate that booster shots increase the number of antibodies, which makes people more resistant to the virus.
Starting last week, more than a dozen restaurants announced on social media that they are shutting down temporarily due to staff members contracting or getting exposed to COVID-19, including Lula Cafe, Rose Mary, Little Goat Diner, Cabra, Kumiko, Lardon, S.K.Y., Big Kids, and Steingold’s of Chicago. Most of the shutdowns are scheduled to last a few days, until staffers can get tested. Other restaurants, including Paulie Gee’s in Logan Square, are serving only takeout and delivery, while still others, such as Bhoomi in the Urbanspace food hall, are considering pivoting to meal kits.
Miller says he’s already heard from customers that think the new policy is too strict and from customers who don’t think Baker Miller should allow indoor dining at all. He also heard from other restaurant owners who are looking for advice about what to do.
“If we don’t want infections,” he says, “we have to be proactive. It’s not something we can’t be proactive about.”