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Details revealed of Chicago’s move on Friday into Phase 4 of reopening plan

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the cautious reopening is possible because the seven-day average number of new COVID-19 cases in Chicago has dropped to 167 a day, putting it in the “moderate-high risk” category.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a news conference at City Hall on Monday, June 22 to discuss details of the city’s plans to continue a cautious reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a news conference at City Hall Monday to discuss details of the city’s plans to continue a cautious reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Public pools will remain closed unless there is a “heat emergency,” but beaches just might open some time next month with social distancing.

Lincoln Park Zoo will remain free, but with reservations required.

Gyms will be open, but you’ll need to work out with a face mask. Equipment will either be six feet apart — or, in smaller facilities, separated by clear plastic screens.

Movie theaters, as well as other theaters and live performance venues can open to audiences of 50 or fewer, but all but the smallest live theaters are likely to remain closed because production costs will far exceed the gate. Standing-room-only live music venues will remain closed — and likely will be the last to reopen.

That’s just a snapshot of what will — and won’t — happen starting Friday, as Chicago moves into Phase 4 of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to cautiously reopen the Chicago economy.

The state also moves into its Phase 4 on Friday. Gov. J.B. Pritzker in early May released his five-part reopening plan called “Restore Illinois,” which prompted some criticism over its separation of the state into four regions. The seven-day COVID-19 positivity rate, as well as hospital metrics, were used as a tool for 28 days to determine whether the state could move to the next phase.

The final step, Phase 5, would mean a full reopening of the economy, but it includes a giant caveat: It would begin “with a vaccine or highly effective treatment widely available or the elimination of any new cases.” The final phase allows for conventions, festivals and large events to begin again.

Currently, the state’s seven-day positivity rate statewide is just 2.5%. But Illinois has lost 6,647 people since the pandemic began.

As announced last week, Chicago restaurants also open Friday to some indoor dining, with limited seating.

City guidelines generally follow the state rules, though the state’s capacity restrictions are looser in some areas.

For instance, the state is allowing outdoor sports to resume with no more than 20% of seating capacity, and concessions allowed with restrictions. In Chicago, however, spectator sports remain shut down, as well as conventions.

In both the city and state, film production can restart, with no more than 50% of sound stage or filming location capacity. Crowd scenes must be limited to 50 people or fewer.

Lightfoot on Monday told reporters Chicago’s guidelines are sometimes different because the city is an air hub, its population density is higher and there are “lots of active infections here still.”

Caution is dictated because, the mayor said, a resurgence is “more than a risk. It’s a very real possibility.” Social distancing, hand hygiene and face masks remain essential, Lightfoot said.

“This approach — turning the dimmer switch cautiously — continues to cause economic harm and hardship. We recognize that. But my first responsibility as mayor is to save lives,” Lightfoot said.

“There are some who think we should just do nothing, have no restrictions, no capacity limits. But when you think of a gathering size of 100 and having a 30 percent chance of somebody in that 100 having a COVID virus — when you go up to 250 and that probability goes up to 60 percent — this is why we are being cautious and prudent.”

The Lakefront Trail and the 606 trail on the Northwest Side both opened Monday. So did harbors, with lake and riverfront tours operating with limited capacity, said Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development.

A Chicago Police officer keeps watch as people exercise on the Lakefront Trail near Fullerton Avenue on the North Side on Monday, the first day the park reopened to the public after being closed amid the coronavirus pandemic,
A Chicago Police officer keeps watch as people exercise on the Lakefront Trail near Fullerton Avenue on the North Side on Monday, the first day the park reopened to the public after being closed amid the coronavirus pandemic,
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

He expects another 200,000 Chicagoans to return to work, joining roughly 130,000 who did so under Phase 3. That’s still a far cry from Chicago’s “base of 1.4 million” employees before the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the coronavirus.

Indoor seating in bars and restaurants, museums and zoos, live performance venues, gyms and summer camps are among the places opening in Phase 4.

Still, even with the go-ahead to reopening to indoor dining at 25% capacity, some restaurant employees have complained they “don’t feel safe” returning to work.

Erick Williams, owner and executive chef of Virtue restaurant, 1462 E. 53rd St., said he firmly believes some employees are just saying that because they can “sit at home” and make “the same money” by collecting unemployment benefits.

Williams said he is committed to keeping his employees safe by taking and logging their temperature, purchasing personal protective equipment for employees, measuring the distance between tables, distributing face masks to guests who show up without masks and taking their temperature before they come into contact with his employees.

Other indoor events will be limited to no more than 50 people or 25% capacity, whichever is less. Outdoor venues will be limited to 100 people. And face masks and social distancing will be required.

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the cautious reopening is possible because the seven-day average number of new COVID-19 cases in Chicago has dropped to 167 a day. That puts the city in the “moderate-high risk,” using national standards.

“As soon as we get down to a moderate incidence level — which for Chicago means fewer than 100 new cases-per-day — that’s when we’ll be able to move ahead and be thinking about expanding those capacity restrictions. So moving from 25 percent to 50 percent, for example. Moving from indoor gatherings of 50 people to 100. … That really could happen just in the space of the next few weeks,” she said.

Pointing to the alarming spikes in other states that have reopened without caution, Mayekar said the goal is to “take small step incrementally so we don’t have to take large steps backward.”

On Monday, Mayekar, Arwady, Chicago Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly and Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Rosa Escareno hosted a conference call with City Hall reporters to talk about the move into Phase 4.

They were joined by: Virtue’s Williams; Dr. Megan Ross, director of Lincoln Park Zoo; Nora Gainer, director of partnerships and tourism for the Art Institute of Chicago; Tanya Triche Dawood, vice-president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and Kevin Cary, the founder of Begyle Brewery who serves as president of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks at a City Hall news conference last year.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks during a press conference at City Hall on Monday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Some of the reopening details:

Gyms

After being confined to outdoor classes and one-on-one training in Phase 3, health clubs, gyms and fitness studios will be authorized to open on Friday at 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever is less. But, because of the high risk of transmission during indoor exercise, sweating patrons will be required to wear face masks during workouts and classes. Exercise equipment will be 6 feet apart. In smaller places where there is less room, at least 3 feet is OK, but with an “impermeable barrier between equipment,” Triche Dawood said. Indoor classes will be limited to 50 people with 6 feet of social distance and “visual cues to show that,” presumably with floor markings. Salons, spas and restaurants located inside health clubs can reopen, but must follow guidelines for those industries. Locker rooms and showers will be open, with proper cleaning, according to the city, but saunas and steam rooms will remain closed.

“We have seen outbreaks and spread in countries that have had a reopening before us specifically linked to fitness clubs and gyms. As people are exercising, that is a stronger exhalation, if you will, than just regular talking. So it is a somewhat hostile setting,” Arwady said, explaining the face mask requirement.

Professional and high school sports

A die-hard Sox fan and a season ticket holder to the Sox and Bears, Lightfoot said she is in “constant conversation” with all of Chicago’s pro sports teams. The schedule for resuming home games in Chicago will primarily be dictated by league offices in conjunction with the players’ associations of each sport, the mayor said.

“My expectation in the short term is that they will reopen, but without fans in the stands,” Lightfoot said.

“My hope is that, over time, we will get to a place where we can start to see some fans in the seats at stadiums in other venues. But, they’re being smart. They’re being prudent, just as we are. Their most valuable asset, of course, is their players. And we want to make sure that, when they reopen, they’re doing it in a way that the players also have confidence that their health is being protected. ... That means, in the short-term, reopening without fans actually physically present.”

Lightfoot said she expects high school sports to resume over the course of the summer, but the precise timetable will be up to the IHSA.

Zoos and museums

Reservations will not be required at the Art Institute, but “online booking in advance will be highly recommended,” Gainer.

Lincoln Park Zoo will remain free, but reservations for a specific time slot will be required.

“We’re very excited about welcoming all of Chicago back to the zoo, but we are gonna require reservations to ensure that we are meeting that capacity number, so people don’t come to the gate and find that we’re at the capacity,” Ross said.

Reservations can be made online at lpzoo.org, Ross said, “so that we can ensure that we are maintaining those capacity numbers.”

Lincoln Park, after a members-only weekend, will reopen to the general public on Monday, June 29. Brookfield Zoo will follow up a week later, with a similar online ticketing system in place, though unlike Lincoln Park Zoo, Brookfield charges admission.

Live performance venues

Just because indoor theaters can reopen only to 25% capacity audiences, with a maximum of 50, doesn’t mean that they will. In fact, Claire Rice, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois, all but predicted only smaller venues will reopen.

Rice said she expects the return of arts in general and theater in particular to be a “very gradual process.” She described Phase 4 as a “baby step in a longer game” of reopening.

“We’re starting very small. For some venues, the economic viability given the workforce demands and the planning demands for production, means that they likely won’t open until later in Phase 4,” Rice said.

“The smaller folks can be a little more nimble with social distancing. We’re talking about timed entry. There are lots of considerations that we’ve looked at in terms of other models across the globe for folks who have started reopening slowly and safely. As safely as possible. That’s what we’ll be experimenting with.”

Rice said she is “very appreciative” that the Department of Public Health is willing to “look frequently at the metrics to try to increase that capacity over time.”

“That’s gonna be particularly important for our mid-size and larger venues that probably won’t be able to reopen, given the business realities, at the beginning of Phase 4,” she said.

Indoor concert venues

Most of these clubs are standing-room-only, with music lovers packed together like sardines. That’s why they must remain closed, even as Chicago tip-toes into Phase 4.

“Independent venues and a lot of the concert venues or clubs where you have to stand — those are more challenging settings. There’s always that fear in that setting that they were the first to close and will be the last to reopen,” Mayekar said.

“That’s why ... we supported the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund to help those venues. We’re gonna continue to try to provide more relief for those venues and work night and day to try to determine the right protocol to get them open. But, some of those more independent venues” that are all standing-only “will be more challenging from a health perspective.”

Playgrounds, pools and beaches

Kelly said other cities have reopened their playgrounds by “disinfecting them every hour,” but that’s simply impossible to do with 600 Park District playgrounds. Arwady said the opportunity for “children to mix” at playgrounds is a “significant concern” and she doesn’t want to jeopardize the on-time opening of Chicago Public Schools this fall by opening playgrounds prematurely.

Lightfoot acknowledged seeing lots of kids on playgrounds during her frequent drives around the city even though playgrounds are closed and will remain so “for the foreseeable future,” she said.

“We’re not cleaning those playgrounds. Parents, you need to careful and cautious. My recommendations as a parent is, don’t go on the playground equipment because it’s not being cleaned,” the mayor said.

Public swimming pools are a source of constant discussion, Arwady said, but “unless we get into a heat emergency-type situation, we don’t have a plan to have pools open.” Beaches are “not open yet,” but could be, depending on how the keep-it-moving edict goes on the lakefront trail, she said.

“We’ll be looking ahead through the 4th of July, then at that point, doing some assessment,” Arwady said.

“Our hope is that it will be coming. And the way we get there is to see our cases keep coming down.”

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles