Case surge means COVID restrictions could tighten again, mayor says: ‘This is a call to action’

“We don’t want to see us have to go back to the kind of restrictive measures we say in March, April and May. But, if we have to, we will,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday.

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a City Hall press conference in July with Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned Monday that she would tighten restrictions again if what she called a “second surge” of coronavirus cases in Chicago is not slowed.

Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot threatened Monday to restore rigid restrictions on business — including another ban on indoor dining and drinking in restaurants and bars — to stop a “second surge” of coronavirus cases.

Over the last two weeks alone, the number of daily cases in Chicago has climbed at the average rate of 508 per day. One day last week, nearly 800 positive tests were reported, the “largest one-day jump” since May 21, she said.

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she fully expects the daily caseload to top 600 by week’s end, putting Chicago in what she called the “red zone.”

And unlike earlier in the pandemic, Chicago’s “second surge” crosses all racial, ethnic and demographic groups in all parts of the city.

Although restaurants and bars aren’t causing the 50% surge in cases, they might become an unwanted casualty of a return to Phase 3 restrictions.

“We, as a city government, are looking at every tool in our tool box — including rolling back to Phase 3 restrictions or other measures as needed,” Lightfoot said.

“I don’t want to go there — particularly for those who are in business, the small businesses who have already suffered through a very difficult year. This would be tragedy for many of them. But I’ve got to do what is right to protect us from this virus.”

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The mayor openly acknowledged Chicagoans suffer from “COVID fatigue.” They’re tired of staying home and “streaming everything they possibly can on Netflix and Prime Video.” They long to be with friends and family. They’re enlarging their social “bubbles” and letting their guards down.

But with the weather turning colder and gatherings being driven indoors, Lightfoot said it’s even more critical for Chicagoans of all ages to limit the number of people coming into their homes and for “unmasked young people” to stop bar-hopping or “traveling in large groups to someone’s apartment.”

In a gathering of 10, there’s a 24% chance someone has “infectious COVID-19,” the mayor said. That risk rises to 30% in a group of 25 and 50% in a group of 50, she said.

“Over the course of the summer and fall when we were feeling a little bit of comfort, we started having dinner parties. We started inviting people over to sit in the backyard. We started having card games and family gatherings. The normal things that we do because we are social beings,” Lightfoot said.

“But I’m here to tell you that has to stop. Particularly as we are coming on Halloween and then Thanksgiving and then Christmas and Hanukkah and other holidays. We have to be diligent to keep down the number of people we are allowing into our homes.”

Arwady acknowledged testing is up — to 10,800 tests a day — but that testing increase is “nowhere near” the 40% spike in cases.

“We know that it’s not all testing and, in fact, there is more COVID,” the commissioner said.

People get tested for COVID-19 at the drive-thru testing site at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village in October 2020.

People get tested for COVID-19 at the drive-thru testing site at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village last week.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

The second surge has not triggered major increases in hospitalizations or patients on ventilators or in intensive care — but only because that “takes time,” Arwady said.

Fourteen days into the second surge, Chicago remains in what Arwady calls the “yellow phase,” which requires public health officials to “pause and monitor.” But without a dramatic turnaround, “We are absolutely gonna be in the red phase,” with further restrictions.

“This has me — and it should have you — very concerned,” she said.

“If it is not essential, do not invite people to your home who do not already live there. … If it is essential. you must wear a mask, even in your own home.”

The state has set an 8% positivity rate as the trigger for when further restrictions would be imposed. Arwady said Chicago would not wait that long.

Early in the pandemic, Lightfoot played the heavy, closing the Lakefront Trail and all lakefront parks and beaches, and driving around the city breaking up large gatherings.

It inspired a hysterical stream of memes Lightfoot embraced and promoted.

Now Chicago restaurants — which just a few weeks ago were allowed to increase their indoor capacity to 40% — could lose all indoor customers just as cold weather restricts outdoor dining to places that can afford heaters and tents.

“We don’t think people are catching the coronavirus in restaurants. They’re catching it more in private gatherings,” said Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “You’re more likely to catch the coronavirus in one of your friends’ basement than you are in one of our restaurants.”

If the city returns to Phase 3 restrictions “and we don’t have a stimulus bill in place — a second round of PPP or $120 billion grant like they’ve done for the airlines, the banks and the auto industry — it’s gonna be devastating to the largest private sector employer here in the state,” Toia said.

Under questioning, Lightfoot said she ideally wants to be “as surgical as possible with targeted interventions” rather than an across-the-board rollback to Phase 3.

She acknowledged no “cause and effect” with loosening or tightening capacity restrictions on restaurants, but argued “a targeted intervention” is “not gonna be easy” because the spike in coronavirus cases is so widespread.

“What today is about is … sounding the alarm. Making sure that people understand that we are absolutely in the second surge,” she said.

“We can’t let down. And we have let down. ... We’ve got to go back to what served us well before. Which is, social distancing, mask wearing, limiting our contacts with others as much as we possibly can.”

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