Nella Plexiglass

New Plexiglass barriers at Nella Pizza e Pasta, 1125 E. 55th St.

The tightrope walk between public health and economic reality continues for Hyde Park-Kenwood's restaurants as they begin to offer indoor dining, albeit at just 25% of capacity.

Reaction had been mixed when the policy was announced on June 19. At Valois, 1518 E 53rd St., John Lathouris said the cafeteria needs at least 50% capacity, which he said could be done safely. "What are we going to do with 25%?" he asked, saying the restaurant would be better off takeout-only.

But the restaurant was serving customers indoors on June 26 for the first time since March.

Amer Abdullah of Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen, 1206 E. 53rd St., had two reactions to the new policy: that 25% sounded about right concerning public health considerations and that he did not feel adequately supported by the city throughout the crisis, calling the municipal support an unresponsive, bureaucratic black hole.
 
"I've applied for some of the loans; I haven't gotten them," he said. "The issue there is that they're forbidding us from opening. My landlord is like, 'I need my rent.' And I'm like, 'I think your issue is more with the governor than me, because I can't put anyone in here.'
 
"Even at 25%, financially speaking at least, it doesn't really help us make money. It doesn't help us break even." 
 
From Sunday through Thursday, restaurants' goal is to break even, Abdullah said. Friday and Saturday will hopefully bring table turnover twice over, which would provide a profit after wages and other expenses. But 25% will not create a profit, he said.
 
Abdullah warned that he has seen restaurants shutter already, and he worries for Cedars' future. His landlord is working with him; Abdullah said they both want the restaurant to succeed. "We haven't missed a month of rent in 18 years, and I've tried to use that in the conversation with him. And he's been really receptive to that," he said. But the landlord needs to pay the bank, too.
 
As far as safety is concerned, Abdullah said Cedars staff religiously wears gloves and masks and regularly goes through temperature checks. "We're taking all precautions, and we encourage people to come out and support all the restaurants," he said. "Not just us."

Frank Grassano at Nella Pizza e Pasta, 1125 E. 55th St., touted new high Plexiglass divisions between booths in his dining room, designed to contain customers' respiration, alongside hand sanitizer at each table and the reduced capacity. "With outside opening and now inside opening, the customer gets to choose where he would like to sit," he said.

Nella only has two chefs on the line, and Grassano said they have paper towels, sanitizer and masks at their disposal; servers have similar personal protective equipment and sanitizer. "We're doing everything that the state and the city are telling us to do," he said.

While the restaurant lacks a sick leave policy for all illnesses, though employees can take vacation time to recover, workers experiencing coronavirus symptoms can stay home and get paid until they are tested, Grassano said. 

"The government has issued a sick leave policy: if they get sick with COVID, they give us the documentation, we give it to our payroll company," he explained. "The payroll company sends it over to the government, and there's a tax write-off for us for paying our employees. There's no harm done, so then it comes on the back end with the payroll tax."

Grassano said everything since the resumption of outdoor dining on June 3 has been going great — even during the initial shutdown, when Nella was only offering carryout, no staff got laid off, and he and his co-owner wife, the restaurant's namesake, still made a small profit. 

"When the weather's nice, people have been coming out and supporting, sitting down and having a great dinner. On the economic side, it's going to be better for the restaurant the more seats you have," he said. "Even if you do 25% outside and 25% inside, it's a great addition."

Other restaurants like Medici on 57th, 1327 E. 57th St., are not yet offering indoor dining. General Manager Kirsten Esterly said the dining room and patio will reopen in July.
 
"Guests will be greeted from behind a plexiglas podium, they will find tables without condiments (servers will be bringing single use condiments when required), they will only be allowed in the building if we have a table available for immediate seating, bathrooms will be sanitized every 30-minutes, and of course we will emphasize continued health and safety measures throughout the visit," she emailed.
 
Amy Le at Saucy Porka, 1164 E. 55th St., said that being allowed to reopen her dining room does not mean she would encourage customers to eat there. "Weather permitting, we're going to continue to dine outside on our patio," she said. "We're not going to allow for indoor dining unless it's raining outside."
 
The current developments in Florida and Texas, which announced the mandatory closure of bars again amid surging new coronavirus infections are on Le's mind. At most, Saucy Porka will allow three indoor tables to be occupied. Staff will continue to be masked and gloved; the register where customers order is now protected by a shield, andthe customers will continue to be served with disposable plates and utensils.
 
Le is covering overhead and paying staff but not making a profit. Saucy Porka will have to start paying rent next month, and she is concerned about the restaurant hitting that benchmark. That being said, month-to-month sales have been increasing since the pandemic began, but the risk-reward balance is still too great for Le to max-out her dining room capacity, even under Chicago's stringent restrictions.
 
"If there is exposure, we have to shut down for two weeks, and that's expensive," she said.
 
Le is very concerned about her staff. She is acutely aware that all her employees do not have health insurance and regrets not being able to provide it. 
 
"(COVID-19) is a very big risk for them that they know and have communicated with me about dining in, and that's why we made that decision to only really allow minimal tables indoors," she said. "I wish I could provide health care, and I wish the Affordable Care Act was more substantial." 
 
But Le does provide sick leave, and the staff provides carpooling to and from work in order to avoid public transit. She limited capacity in the kitchen and said, with one chef prepping in the back and another preparing meals in the front, that social distancing can be maintained. Employees made the decision to avoid recent protests in order to protect coworkers.
 
"None of us have gone out dining at all. A lot of the people who are working with me, they are the bread-and-butter winners in their home," she said. "We have a living wage, so everyone gets paid $14-15 an hour, and some get more, those who have been with me a longer period of time. And it's just a commitment we have to each other."

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