By Steven Graves

CHICAGO (CBS) — Chicago and suburban Cook County have moved to Tier 1 COVID-19 mitigations, state health officials announced Saturday. This means restaurants and bars will be allowed to reopen for indoor dining.

The move to Tier 1 means Chicago and its suburbs can allow 25 people or 25% capacity inside to dine, whichever number is smaller. It’s a lifeline, but many eateries say the cost of operation outweighs the profit at the percentage.

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No more than four people are allowed per party, and only members of the same household are recommended. Additionally, all bars and restaurants must close at 11 p.m. and may not reopen before 6 a.m. the following day, and indoor reservations are limited to two hours.

Dine-in service will only be allowed at tables, not bars.

To move from Tier 2 to Tier 1, the regions must have a test positivity rate between 6.5% and 8% for three consecutive days and 20% of staffed intensive care unit beds available and have no sustained increase in COVID-19 patients in hospitals.

As CBS 2’s Steven Graves reported, the relaxed mitigations are a big relief for business owners.

As of Saturday, it had been more than two months since indoor dining had been banned across Illinois, and restaurants missed out on those big moneymakers like the holidays.

At Fulton Market, you might remember that when the indoor dining ban went into effect in the fall, bubbles and tents were filled with people, chairs, and tables. Now most are empty.

The migration indoors is happening at slow pace, but just in time as freezing temperatures settle in.

“Since I haven’t dined out since October, it was really, really comfortable,” said indoor diner Brooke Kashnowski.

Seeing warm customers through windows in cushy seating was a sign of COVID-19 cases going down. But masks are still up, as not all is normal.

“You wear your mask until you’re eating, so it felt safe,” Kashnowski said.

But some are sacrificing the warmth for peace of mind.

“I do like being in our own private bubble rather than inside,” one woman said.

As to how long until she would be comfortable dining inside, Heather Radcliffe said, “I would say in the warmer weather when we can go out on the patios a little bit and once the cases lower.”

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As of Saturday, Chicago sat at a positivity rate slightly higher than 7 percent. It is lower than the around nine percent mark the city was at when the ban initially went into effect back in October.

The Pompei restaurant, at 1531 W. Taylor St. in Little Italy was prepared to open. They had enough staff on hand who only had to space out tables and clean them. They were happy to have more options than the outdoor heated patio that held fewer customers, and also resulted in less profit.

“We were elated – absolutely elated,” said Kim DiPofi of Pompei Restaurant.

Those in the restaurant industry are calling this opening a “cautious victory.”

“We need to get back to 50 and 100 percent to start to see anything come back to normal,” DiPofi said.

Some owners are now demanding talks with the Mayor’s office each week, with the goal of an indoor ban not happening again.

“Safety, safety is number one,” said Roger Romanelli of the Chicago Restaurants Coalition. “Full teamwork, full cooperation and working together so indoor dining does not get closed down again unless there’s specific proof that restaurants are causing a problem.”

But that all depends on keeping cases down, as the city looks at restaurants as potential COVID spreading spaces.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement Saturday that she hopes business owners and customers can work together to make sure these spaces are safe.

The coalition estimates about 200 restaurants have closed because of the dining shutdown.

Group gatherings such as weddings will also be allowed under Tier 1, but with restrictions. Gatherings will be limited to 25 guests or 25% of room capacity indoors and outdoors. However, party bus operation will still not be permitted.

The Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection will hold webinars Monday and Tuesday to help businesses navigate the new guidelines. Information can be found at on the city’s website.

The Illinois Department of Public Health also said if numbers trend in the wrong directions, regions could be moved back to a higher tier with increased measures.

Southern Illinois became the first region of the state to be allowed to lift the ban on indoor dining last week, after public health officials confirmed it had met the requirements to move to Tier 1 of COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

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