The Cook County Department of Public Health, which covers most of the county’s suburban municipalities, including Forest Park, issued new COVID-19 mitigation orders effective Jan. 3 requiring all eating and drinking establishments as well as fitness centers and spas to verify proof of vaccination for patrons age five and above.

The move, which was announced in late December by public health leaders and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, comes as new COVID-19 infections have climbed to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic and was issued days after the city of Chicago announced a similar rule.

Oak Park, which operates its own health department, will also have a similar provision in place, although it is not scheduled to take effect until next week.

In a call with business owners on Dec. 28, Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder explained her office’s rationale.

“If the county does it and Chicago, does it, it doesn’t really make sense for Oak Park not to do it since we are not an island,” she said during the listening session. “We don’t want to also become a safe haven for all of those people who are unvaccinated throughout the county and the city to come to Oak Park and utilize our restaurants and our gyms and bring in an additional risk to Oak Park that wasn’t here before.”

Fitness centers adjust after mandate | Movie theaters brace for new rule

The mandates have left restaurant and bar owners to figure out how best to implement the order inside their businesses while also enforcing the statewide mask mandate that remains in effect. Read on to learn how some restaurant owners in our Eats communities are reacting to the new requirements:

Restaurants in Forest Park served masked customers outside once the state allowed outdoor dining beginning at the end of May 2020. | File photo

Scratch on Lake | Oak Park
Lathrop House Café | Forest Park

Patrick O’Brien, owner of Scratch Restaurant Group, has been riding the COVID wave for two years. He opened Lathrop House Café, 26 Lathrop Ave, Forest Park, mid pandemic, closed District Kitchen and Tap in the Oak Park Arts District last April, and developed a plan to help Scratch on Lake, 733 Lake St, Oak Park, thrive despite the ongoing pandemic.

“Whatever the law is we will follow it,” said O’Brien. “This issue is so highly debated, even in my own house, that I don’t want to risk alienating any of my customer base with my opinions.”

The veteran restaurateur went on to say the issue has become so political that businesses are equally at risk of losing customers if they are vocally against or in favor of vaccine mandates. O’Brien was clear his goal is to be there for his customers and help his businesses survive “whatever comes next.”

Duffy’s Tavern | Forest Park

“Duffy’s is a neighborhood tavern with a substantial number of regular guests, and I know for a fact that a great number of them are fully vaccinated and already do smart things like keep a photo of their vaccination card on their phone,” said Joe Sullivan, owner of Duffy’s Tavern, 7315 W. Madison St. “My regulars get it and I’m hoping new guests do as well. It’s been a very rough two years for the service industry, and we desperately need to get back to normal. I hope this mitigation effort leads to more people getting their vaccinations so that they can come out safely.”

Sullivan is pleased his regular clientele is largely compliant with the new vaccine mandate and hopes the requirement will also encourage fully vaccinated individuals who remain hesitant to visit bars and restaurants to come out for the first time.

One Lake Brewing | Oak Park

Owners at One Lake Brewing, 1 Lake St., Oak Park, have been nimble in the face of the global pandemic. In the past two years, they have developed a curbside service model, closed their midlevel dining room, eliminated table service on the first level and constructed a flexible roof-top dining area in response to the shifting nature of COVID-19. Most importantly Kristen Alfonsi, co-owner of One Lake, has made sure her business has followed all state and local guidelines related to the pandemic.

“We are doing our best to keep people safe, and we rolled out the vaccine requirement this week because we knew it was happening,” said Alfonsi. “To be honest, I think omicron will make business slower than the vaccine mandate will.”

Alfonsi said business had started “to get good again” and events like trivia nights and live music performances are back on the schedule, but also shared concerns that events may have to “pause” if the omicron surge continues.

“We understand there has been an uptick in cases and we will follow the guidelines, but we are hoping beyond hope that things look better a month from now,” said Alfonsi.

Kettlestrings Tavern | Oak Park

Employees at Kettlestrings Tavern, 800 S. Oak Park Ave., are accustomed to checking identification before serving their patrons. Rob Guenthner, Kettlestrings co-owner, is confident his staff is more than capable of checking customers’ vaccine cards but has some skepticism about the latest mandate.

“I worry there doesn’t seem to be a good scientific reason behind this and it feels like a way to encourage people to get vaccinated,” said Guenthner. “I am all for incentivizing people to get vaccinated but doing that at the expense of an entire industry seems odd.”

He went on to say he has concerns about customers potentially becoming upset in the face of being turned away from their dining room.

“We will encourage all unvaccinated people to order takeout but will not hesitate to call the police if a situation requires it,” said Guenthner. “We hope it won’t come to that in our community, but we will not put our staff at risk.”

To prevent people from having to show their vaccine cards on multiple visits, Kettlestrings will keep a log on file for interested customers.

Irish Times | Brookfield

Martin Lynch, owner of Irish Times, 8869 Burlington Ave, Brookfield, was quick to point out that vaccine requirements are required for dining or drinking in bars and restaurants across Ireland.

“Our staff is 100% vaccinated so this mandate only adds another level of comfort for our employees and our customers,” said Lynch. “We have been going by what they are doing in Ireland so I don’t see a downside to this at all. A vaccine requirement for staff and customers will only help to speed our exit from this whole pandemic.”

Lynch said they will leave checking vaccine status and IDs to bartenders and servers. He does not anticipate there will be angry customers because of the mandate especially because it covers a broad section of the state.

“Everyone has been expecting this; it has been in the ethers and now it is here,” said Lynch.

FitzGerald’s | Berwyn

Prior to the Jan. 3 mandate for suburban Cook County, FitzGerald’s Nightclub, 6615 Roosevelt Rd., fell in line with most Chicagoland music venues and required proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to gain entry to the club. The new mandate does away with the negative test option. Rather than wait, Will Duncan, club owner, started requiring proof of vaccination in all Fitzgerald’s indoor space, including Babygold Barbecue and Side Bar, in late December.

“We’re comfortable being open with the proof of vaccination requirement for Cook County,” said Duncan on December 30.

Duncan continues stress the importance of wearing masks among staff and patrons inside Fitzgerald’s regardless of the vaccine mandate.