Guests enjoy the views while having dinner and drinks on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, on the rooftop at One Lake Brewing on Lake Street in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Empty restaurant dining rooms have become an upsetting hallmark of the COVID-19 pandemic. When suburban Cook County moved into Tier 1 COVID-19 mitigations on Jan. 23, it came as no surprise many eateries opted to open their dining rooms almost instantaneously.  Though restaurants and bars are now permitted to host customers indoors at reduced capacity, it is notable several local establishments have intentionally kept their dining rooms closed despite easing COVID related restrictions. The reasons behind the choice to remain closed are as varied as the fluctuating circumstances that led to their closures in the first place.

Diminutive Sen Sushi, 814 S. Oak Park Ave., simply does not have the square footage to re-open at limited capacity. The 28-seat Japanese restaurant is just 1,000 square-feet. In pre-pandemic times Sen bustled with customers perched shoulder-to-shoulder at the sushi bar and gathered at tightly arranged tables.

“At 25% capacity we would be allowed to have seven or eight customers in here,” said Varanya Chaiprasert, co-owner of Sen Sushi. “Just to keep up with carryout orders we have four sushi chefs in here at once plus food packers. We are at capacity with staff alone.”

Chaiprasert also drastically shifted restaurant operations in response to COVID-19. Take out orders that used to be filled by back of house, are now organized and packaged on long tables in the once-lively dining room. Customers do not enter the restaurant to pick up their orders — maki rolls and miso soup are safely passed through the door of Sen’s winter vestibule enclosure.

Even with extensive precautions in place, Sen had a COVID exposure that forced a temporary closure for deep cleaning and COVID testing. Adding more risk to their current operations simply didn’t feel right given Sen’s close quarters.

“Our staff feel safe within the walls of this restaurant and trust each other to keep safety protocols in place. Our customers appreciate and support our choice to be careful,” said Chaiprasert. “We won’t reopen until restaurant can be filled to 100% capacity.”

Forest Park café, Kribi Coffee, 7324 Madison St., is also keeping their dining spaces quiet while they make a concerted plan for reopening based on medical advice and staff input.

Kribi Coffee owner Jacques Shalo’s wife, Cindy Fellencer, is a Loyola Hospital nurse and deeply involved in coordinating the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. She has been using her medical knowledge to guide Shalo’s decisions and make recommendations related to reopening. 

‘I don’t judge restaurants that have reopened. Personally, I find this scary and want to take it slow,” said the coffee shop owner. “There are so many moving parts to all of this, and this is like nothing we have ever dealt with before. COVID is not a switch you can just turn on and off.”

 Shalo is focused on empowering his staff to help make decisions related to reopening and welcomes their participation in making methodical plans to keep everyone safe. On Sunday, Kribi is having an all staff meeting to go through a “re-training” process designed to make sure COVID safety measures like air purification, sanitizing and face shields continue to be a top priority for staff members engaging with the public. Shalo is also ready to hear and address any concerns staff members may have related to opening for indoor service.

“This is a team effort,” said Shalo. “We are working in unison on the frontline. I am ready to hear any and all concerns and will take them seriously. We want people to feel comfortable until vaccines bring the change we need.”

Kristen Alfonsi, co-owner of One Lake Brewing is keeping an eye on customer demand to inform a reopening plan. For now, the craft brewery and restaurant with three floors of dining space, at 1 Lake St. in Oak Park, is sticking to outdoor rooftop dining and carry out despite having a full middle floor of available indoor tables.

One Lake’s vertical layout keeps carryout orders flowing on the first floor and rooftop diners on the third. Reopening the midlevel for limited capacity indoor dining would put the restaurant in the position of “operating three businesses in one” according to Alfonsi.

“Opening the second floor for indoor dining means we would need to bring on more employees,” said Alfonsi. “With such limited capacity and so few tables available we may not be able to guarantee enough customers or hours to make it financially advantageous for new staff members.”

Weighing customer demand and capacity limitations against the desire to pay staff a livable wage makes establishing a reopening timeline difficult. One Lake’s three level scenario is an anomaly but running three businesses on three floors is not an option now. If customer demand increases and restaurant workers were able to be vaccinated the plan to reopen One Lake’s dining rooms would become clearer.

“For now, we know we’ve built so much trust with the community because of our COVID compliance and we don’t want to tamper with that,” said Alfonsi. “We’re giving people an experience on the rooftop. Our rooftop may not be for everyone, but if you bring a blanket and keep the hot cocktails flowing it feels like a ski lodge up there. It is just so fun.”

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