McHenry County restaurants grateful for return of indoor dining under Tier 1, but for some businesses, relaxation of rules ‘is not going to help at all’

‘Tier 1 is fine and dandy. We need to open fully. And let the customer decide whether they are coming in or not,’ one restaurant owner says

In the past several days, as McHenry and Lake counties inched closer to COVID-19 metrics that would allow the region to loosen restrictions on businesses meant to slow the pandemic, Richard Walker’s Pancake House in Crystal Lake received a noticeable uptick in the number of phone calls it received.

“Everyone is calling and seeing if we’re open. It’s kind of nice,” said Barb Kaminsky, assistant manager of the brunch spot. “We’re ecstatic. Everyone wants to get back to work.”

With Tuesday’s decision by state officials to allow Lake and McHenry counties, along with a handful of other jurisdictions, move from Tier 2 coronavirus mitigations into the less stringent Tier 1 rules, restaurants can now legally open their indoor dining rooms to no more than 25% of normal capacity, or 25 total customers per room, with tables no larger than four people.

Richard Walker’s had already been seating some people indoors at limited capacities, as have many other local eateries under rules imposed by some municipal governments in the area that let dining rooms stay open with social distancing in place.

But Tuesday’s shift in regulations meant the restaurant was, for the first time in a while, officially in compliance with state and local rules, which felt good for Kaminsky, who said the restaurant has always been careful to operate in accordance with the law.

“We were always compliant, cleaning menus, wearing masks, all that. Using sanitizers. It’s been OK. We haven’t had any issues, any problems. We are bringing a little bit more staff back,” Kaminsky said.

While Kaminsky said the restaurant was celebrating the move into Tier 1, other business leaders in McHenry County aren’t quite ready to jump up and down in excitement about the relaxation of measures aimed at slowing viral spread.

In addition to letting restaurants open back up for indoor service, the changes also grant meeting rooms, party facilities and banquet halls the option to host 25 people or 25% of their capacities, whichever is less, an upgrade from the limit of 10-person gatherings under Tier 2.

“We have space for 1,000 people. To do 25, really, it doesn’t do a whole lot for us to be honest with you,” said Eric Yarolimek, director of sales and marketing for Holiday Inn Crystal Lake, a hotel that runs the ELARA Convention Center, a facility more than 10,000 square feet.

The space has been getting booked for events of much lower attendance than it can host, he said, such as birthday parties or memorial luncheons.

“Now I think we’ll see more of those small things. As far as weddings and the big things, that’s the back half of the year,” Yarolimek said.

Barry Nichols, co-owner of Whispering Woods banquet hall and event center near Harvard, is disappointed that public health officials have created rules that let some businesses run at reduced paces, while his depends on gatherings of much more than 25.

“You can’t have an in-between stage. It hurts those people who can’t do what the people with money and opportunity can,” Nichols said, adding that the switch to Tier 1 “is not going to help at all.”

He feels a better approach would have been to institute a broad stay-at-home order applied to all businesses, like officials did in the spring last year when the pandemic first hit Illinois.

Unless such a route is taken, Nichols said, he thinks officials should open the floodgates entirely by lifting all restrictions, instead of letting certain sectors of the economy operate in fits and starts under the separate tiers. That’s because, he said, moving to a looser tier risks spreading the virus enough to move backward into a more strict set of rules, like what happened in November, when the entire state moved into the tightest regulations known as Tier 3.

“Until we can open all the way up, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

Niko Kanakaris, a Huntley village trustee who operates restaurants in the area, also feels the additional flexibility under Tier 1 rules is not enough for local businesses. One of his restaurants, Niko’s Red Mill in Woodstock, has booked musical acts for this summer without knowing whether the concerts will be able to proceed.

“We need 100% occupancy actually. It’s very hard to survive with 25% of your place being occupied,” Kanakaris said.

While Tier 1 is not totally satisfying for McHenry County businesses, seeing mitigations that have stressed economies across Illinois get peeled back is still encouraging, Kanakaris and Yarolimek said.

“Tier 1 is fine and dandy. We need to open fully. And let the customer decide whether they are coming in or not,” Kanakaris said.

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry covers local government, business, K-12 education and all other aspects of life in McHenry County, in particular in the communities of Woodstock, McHenry, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and Johnsburg.