Nearly one year into the coronavirus pandemic, Hyde Park restaurants are uneasily hanging on, and eagerly anticipating an end to the public health crisis that has shattered profits.
Government assistance and the recent resumption of limited indoor dining has allowed some to bring more employees back, but they say it will take summer warmth and the long-awaited end of the pandemic, one way or another, to bring their businesses back to viability.
Salvatore Pappalito opened the Sit Down Cafe & Sushi Bar, 1312 E. 53rd St., in 2008 and said he is making it work today, mostly through moderating labor costs. Without indoor dining, he doesn't need dishwashers, bussers or servers. "We went down front of the house, we went down back of the house. It's adjustments. It's all it's about," he said.
Nevertheless, he ended 2020 "down big numbers," he said: "There's no way around it. There's people who are not going out. You've got people who are scared to go out. You've got people who don't have the means to go out, people losing their jobs everywhere, not only in the restaurant industry but other industries. And without work, you don't have the means to have extra spending money."
It remains to be seen if 2021 will be better than 2020, but the coronavirus will certainly be a long-term disruption to society. At the very least, there will be months to come before anyone who wants to get vaccinated can get their shots.
But in the meantime, Pappalito said he wants to have more indoor seating. Having to close every few months and losing experienced staff then reopening, training staff, then losing them again, he said, is unsustainable.
"I know there's no way to make consistency out of it, but restaurants are a heavily regulated industry as is," he said. "Health certificates are needed for almost everyone in the restaurant. Sanitation on a daily, hourly, table-by-table basis. For us, if you keep the spacing in a restaurant it's 190-times better than a tent outside that has four walls on it."
The Sit Down Cafe invested in a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system with ultraviolet lights built in, meant to provide germicidal capabilities. Pappalito said his staff is stringently disinfecting the dining room with a fogger every night and wiping down tables after every party.
"I get the restrictions," he said. "We're too dangerous that we can't be open, but when they open us, we're not unsafe enough that the people working in the industry can get the vaccine just like grocery stores and things like that."
Under Chicago Department of Public Health vaccine distribution guidelines, restaurant and bar employees, as essential workers, are in Group 1c, meaning they are scheduled to become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on March 29.
There is concerning scientific evidence about the safety of indoor dining amid this pandemic, both for workers and customers. A September study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were approximately twice as likely to have gone out to eat as those who tested negative.
A November model from Stanford University predicted that restaurants with indoor dining could be super-spreader sites and correctly predicted higher infection rates for disadvantaged racial and socioeconomic groups; researchers suggested restricting maximum occupancy. And a January analysis from the University of California found that excess mortality was up 39% among food and agricultural workers from March to October 2020 in that state.
Chicago restaurateurs, however, have long chaffed at the blame the industry has faced during the pandemic, in part because of the difficulty of pinpointing infections to one location in particular. Last October, Dr. John Schneider, medical director of the Hyde Park Howard Brown Health Clinic, 1525 E. 55th St., told the Sun-Times that maskless interactions between people of different households at the same table are the chief worry. Echoing the findings from California, he noted that kitchen workers are at much more risk than customers.
At the Sit Down, Pappalito said that his staff wears masks religiously; he furthermore argued that things would be more unsafe if people were left to go to socialize at parties and events in unregulated spaces, not in well-regulated restaurants. And he believes that Chicago's restaurant regulations and guidance are sufficiently rigorous — he just wants consistency in the months to come.
The nonprofit Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago Refectory, 1100 E. 55th St. reopened for to-go orders in June and has yet to reopen their dining room. That suits Reneé Fisher, a line cook, cashier and veteran in the service industry, fine: she said her anxiety is alleviated working in a closed kitchen with the same people every day, with customers ordering at a distance, behind plexiglass.
"I've been cooking for a long time and working in different facilities, but this is the first time I've worked for a college, and it's a lot easier," she said. "Because we service the school first and then service the public second, it's a different mindset when it comes to your cooking."
She empathizes with her service colleagues waiting tables at other restaurants for tipped income, though, and wants service workers to get vaccines expeditiously.
Maria Zas' husband Norberto has managed Piccolo Mondo, 1642 E. 56th St., since 1999 and owned it outright since 2007. In addition to the full-service restaurant, he runs a catering business as well as the bakery on the ground floor of the Windermere House Apartments, where Maria was working one weekday afternoon.
The pandemic has strongly curtailed the catering business; the University of Chicago had been a strong customer but has cut back its orders. University employees, who had been loyal patrons of the bakery-coffee shop, have been working from home. And the restaurant has suffered through the closures. Zas has not taken a salary throughout the pandemic; Maria, who is an attorney, has been the breadwinner.
Piccolo Mondo offers take-out and has gotten both rounds of Paycheck Protection Program funding from the federal government. But Maria Zas said the money went fast, with partial rent and salaries to pay and business so limited. The restaurant hours have been cut back significantly, to only dinner service six days a week and two meals on Sundays.
Patio dining, good for business in the summer, has long since ended, and the restaurant's dining room is huge. "When you can do take-out, and you have a small space and your rent is low, then you can manage," she said. "But when you have such a big space like this one, and most of of it is your restaurant, and you have to close your restaurant, the take-out cannot make up for that."
"I don't think there is a business in the world that can reduce 75% capacity and still pay 100% of the bills and survive," she said. She said she needs the community's support, but understands people's fear about dining in a restaurant right now. Like Pappalito, she pointed to Chicago's regulation of restaurants as a means to prevent spread of the coronavirus and the potential for the disease to spread in unregulated homes and gatherings.
"If you follow the rules, if you are with your family members at a table, if you pull down your mask, if the other table is 8 feet apart — unless they're shouting to the other table, the chances are really low," she said. "But you need to make sure that the rules are followed and that the tables are apart. I have gone restaurants where they are not, where they are only 4 feet apart. … You can only do what you can do following the rules."
More than anything, Zas wants mass vaccinations and the pandemic to end. "No matter how much federal aid you have, if you have a business that can only survive if the government pays your salaries and your rent, you don't have a business, really," she said. "At one point, that is going to end. It's not a long-term plan. It's a short-term plan that can navigate three or four months. That cannot be your business model for a year or two years from now."
Pappalito said that indoor dining will not restore the Sit Down to profitability, but it provides a light at the end of the tunnel. "If everyone loses a lot, there ain't gonna be any businesses left open," he said. "You're always worried (about closing). You have a business model, and we're being told that we can't operate that business model."
Zas is concerned about closing. If there is progress by the summer, she thinks there is a chance at survival. If not, she sees "limited" chances for Piccolo Mondo and other restaurants.
"At one point, the business has to be profitable again, or there is no sense in having a business," she said. "And for now, we're trying to do all we can to keep our employees and to keep it open because of that. Otherwise we would have gone out of business already. The goal is to try to survive this and try to see what is on the end of the tunnel."
Juan Solis, working behind the counter, has been at Piccolo Mondo since September after losing his previous catering jobs at the beginning of the pandemic last March. He cannot be certain because of the lack of tests at the time, but he believes he contracted COVID-19 then: he had a significant fever, lost his sense of taste, and his hair fell out. With the unemployment insurance system overloaded, he never got benefits, gave up trying and survived on his savings.
He said he is not particularly worried about catching COVID-19 again. He hopes to get vaccinated and for a return to normalcy.
"I love working in this industry," he said. "When you do work for catering, you work in different places, you do something different almost every day."
After a string of contract work, Solis likes the relative stability of his job at Piccolo Mondo and hopes to have it for awhile. But his practice of always working a second job continues. He is making deliveries for DoorDash.