To combat emerging coronaviruses, developing safe and efficient platforms to evaluate viral protease activities and the efficacy of protease inhibitors is a high priority. Here, we exploit a biosafety level 2 (BSL-2) chimeric Sindbis virus system to evaluate protease activities and the efficacy of inhibitors directed against the papain-like protease (PLpro) of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV), a biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) pathogen. We engineered Sindbis virus to coexpress PLpro and a substrate, murine interferon-stimulated gene 15 (ISG15), and found that PLpro mediates removal of ISG15 (deISGylation) from cellular proteins. Mutation of the catalytic cysteine residue of PLpro or addition of a PLpro inhibitor blocked deISGylation in virus-infected cells. Thus, deISGylation is a marker of PLpro activity. Infection of alpha/beta interferon receptor knockout (IFNAR-/-) mice with these chimeric viruses revealed that PLpro deISGylation activity removed ISG15-mediated protection during viral infection. Importantly, administration of a PLpro inhibitor protected these mice from lethal infection, demonstrating the efficacy of a coronavirus protease inhibitor in a mouse model. However, this PLpro inhibitor was not sufficient to protect the mice from lethal infection with SARS-CoV MA15, suggesting that further optimization of the delivery and stability of PLpro inhibitors is needed. We extended the chimeric-virus platform to evaluate the papain-like protease/deISGylating activity of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) to provide a small-animal model to evaluate PLpro inhibitors of this recently emerged pathogen. This platform has the potential to be universally adaptable to other viral and cellular enzymes that have deISGylating activities.