Life in Chicago is creeping even closer to normal: On Friday, May 14, the city will enter the Chicago Bridge Phase of its COVID-19 reopening plan, which bumps up capacity limits for industries across the city to the highest levels in more than a year. As part of the Bridge Phase, the city will also introduce new vaccine exemption guidelines, meaning fully vaccinated people—i.e. those who have received their final vaccine dose 14 or more days prior—do not count toward businesses' total capacity limits.
What does that mean for the near future of dining, drinking and going out in Chicago? First of all, it's important to note that businesses don't have to utilize the vaccine exemption; those that don't will have to stick to the Bridge Phase regulations. The exemption will also likely prove more effective when used in larger spaces, since all businesses will still be required to maintain six feet of physical distance between parties. And finally—like so much of the reopening rollout—these guidelines are temporary and subject to change, especially since Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she intends to open the city fully by July 4. Trying to effectively implement the vaccine exemption rule for a few weeks before capacity limits are (hopefully) lifted entirely may not be worth the hassle for many businesses.
Here are the other key takeaways from the new rule:
All Chicago businesses can take advantage of the exemption, from restaurants and bars to houses of worship
The guidelines extend to all establishments licensed by the office of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection as well as those not licensed, such as offices and houses of worship. For the former category, the licensee will be responsible for verifying that each patron is vaccinated; for the latter, the building owner or lease holder will have to verify.
Patrons will have to provide proof of full vaccination—and acceptable materials may vary from business to business
Consider sticking your Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-approved vaccine card in a laminated sleeve, because you will likely need it to prove your vaccination status. Prefer to keep your card safe at home? That's probably fine, too—the city also considers photos and photocopies of the card to be acceptable, as well as other electronic proof of vaccine records. You'll have to show proof before walking in the door, so think of it like flashing your ID at a 21+ show.
However, despite city guidance, individual businesses are responsible for implementing their own methods for verifying vaccination, so it's best to call ahead and check what you need to bring before visiting.
Businesses will have to tread carefully around data privacy laws
Establishments aren't required to keep records on patrons' vaccination information. But for something like an online event pre-registration—which the city suggests could require self-reporting one's vaccination status during registration and later showing proof on the day of the event—businesses will have to keep track of which patrons will have to later present in-person proof of vaccination. In that case, documentation expectations must be clearly communicated to the patron at the time of purchase, and businesses are advised to consult with an attorney about data privacy and HIPAA concerns regarding the storage of information related to vaccination records.
Table size limits can increase if all members of the party are vaccinated
Under the Bridge Phase, party sizes max out at 10 people for restaurants and bars with table service and six people for bar or counter service. But with the vaccine exemption, table or party size can go beyond the limit if all party members 16 and older are vaccinated.
Bars and restaurants with late hour liquor licenses can stay open without hour restrictions if only vaccinated patrons are allowed
Per the Bridge Phase, establishments that sell alcohol can resume their usual operating hours, staying open until 2am Sunday through Friday and 3am on Saturdays. Bars with late night licenses may resume their former operating hours if only vaccinated patrons are allowed to enter during late-hour operations, staying open until 4am Sunday through Friday and 5am on Saturdays.
Vaccinated patrons still need to follow additional COVID-19 regulations
Even if you're fully vaccinated, you'll need to adhere to other basic safety guidelines: That means wearing a mask except when actively eating or drinking and maintaining six feet of distance between parties. Businesses will be responsible for enforcing those rules even when all patrons are vaccinated. Remember to stay safe, pull your mask up and keep that vaccine card handy!