McHenry County restaurants stick to their decisions on indoor dining as Tier 3 begins Friday

Friday marked the start of the state's stricter Tier 3 mitigation measures across Illinois, but McHenry County restaurant owners stuck with the decisions they made when the ban on indoor dining was first introduced at the end of October.

While some local leaders have said the Tier 3 mitigations are fairer to businesses than the governor's stay-at-home order in March, Diane Walsh, co-owner of Sammy's Bar and Grill in Huntley, said she feels the restaurant industry is once again bearing the brunt of the state's restrictions.

"If they're going to solve it, they have to solve it and everyone has to take the brunt of it, not just one industry or two industries," Walsh said. "We don't mind going down, but we do mind going down alone. That's the problem."

She and co-owner Mike Bruski didn’t take the decision to remain open for indoor dining lightly. Walsh herself has already buried a loved one due to COVID-19 so she said she does not want to be seen as someone who doesn’t take it seriously.

"My solution would be shut the whole thing down, the whole state down for three, four weeks," she said. "Let everyone feels the same effects, get it over with. ... We have to do what we have to do."

Under Tier 3, banquet halls, event spaces, cultural institutions, casinos and indoor fitness classes and recreational activities will be put on hold.

Health and fitness centers, personal care services, pharmacies, retail shops and grocery stores all must operate under tighter capacity restrictions. Bars and restaurants continue to be limited to outdoor, pickup and delivery services only.

Co-owner of 3 Brothers Restaurant in Woodstock Kelly Alimovski said his team initially decided to comply with the ban on indoor dining when McHenry County moved into Tier 1 of the state's mitigation measures on Oct. 31.

They tried this for nearly two weeks, but soon realized that the majority of other restaurants in their community were not following the guidance, Alimovski said.

The city of Woodstock sent 3 Brothers Restaurant a communication saying they did not plan to enforce the ban on indoor dining, leaving the restaurant with few incentives to close its doors, Alimovski said. What they did do, however, was try to provide as safe an indoor dining experience as possible by distancing tables and installing plexiglass, he said.

The city of Woodstock, along with the city of McHenry, made announcements last week, laying out their own rules for restrictions for restaurants that choose to allow customers to dine indoors.

"It wasn't a fair playing field," he said. "If everybody was closed then that would be okay, everybody would be surviving on carry-out and delivery. But with some open, some closed ... we tried as long as we could but then we saw that it was really affecting us because everybody else was staying open."

Restauranteurs are a very close-knit community and until they all decide to stop indoor service together, it will be difficult for any one business to do so, Walsh said.

"This goes on every time something happens," she said. "Every small town has their clique of restaurants that will get together and talk amongst themselves and it's kind of like, well, we got to go into this as a group or not. You can't be the single man out there when it comes to stuff like this."

Even with the start of Tier 3, Alimovski said the situation will remain the same until restaurants decide to begin complying as a united front.

While Cafe Olympic Co-owner Rachel Skubiszewski-Mucci said it was "really no question" that she and co-owner Rosie Cermak would comply with the indoor dining ban, she said she does not fault other businesses for not doing the same.

Now that Gov. JB Pritzker has moved the entire state into Tier 3, Skubiszewski-Mucci said this decision has made for a smooth transition as not much will change for them regardless of what the future holds.

The latest blow that comes with the governor's Tier 3 mitigations is the ban on indoor gaming machines, which Walsh said used to generate enough revenue to pay for all of the restaurant's overhead costs.

“Without the PPE loans we had before and without the gaming, it’s almost impossible to survive,” Walsh said. “Closing the doors, then all our staff is out of a job again.”

Stepping up delivery and carry-out comes with operational costs that they likely wouldn’t make up for with that as their only stream of revenue, she said.

“We probably couldn’t survive,” Walsh said. “So it’s like, do you lose something you’ve invested five, six years of your time in or, for some people, a life time? Do you just let that go?”

Sammy’s Bar and Grill tried the idea of an outdoor tent, but between high winds and strict municipal codes, they couldn’t seem to set anything up capable of convincing customers to want to dine outside, she said.

With a pocketbook typical of a small business, Walsh said they can’t afford to invest in state-of-the-art outdoor heaters or fancy dining igloos.

Skubiszewski-Mucci said they have had better luck limiting their business to outdoor seating with carry-out and delivery options, but have still felt the increasingly heavy weight of the restrictions.

"Tuesday night, ... we filled up like 75% of our patio," she said. "People are all bundled up in winter coats and hats and bring their dogs and just trying to support us and also feel safe and get out of the house so that's pretty much the route we're taking right now."