Facing rising coronavirus case numbers, Chicago public health officials did an about-face Tuesday and announced a return to an indoor mask mandate some three months after lifting it.
Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said face coverings will be required in Chicago stores, restaurants and other public spaces starting Friday for all people over the age of 2 regardless of the person’s vaccination status.
“With Chicago passing 400 cases per day, we have seen that metric move into higher risk,” Arwady said at a City Hall news conference. “With that move into higher risk, we did want to take additional action.”
Chicago now is averaging 444 new cases a day, and being consistently above 400 means “masks are now required in indoor public settings in Chicago.”
Though the daily caseload is up, Arwady noted that the rest of the primary COVID-19 metrics remain lower risk, including the city’s test positivity rate — 4.5% — and its hospitalization figures, which are relatively low.
Arwady said the mask mandate will remain in place until the city’s daily caseload remains below the 400 case-per-day threshold “consistently,” or for one to two weeks. At that point, the mandate will be downgraded back to a recommendation, the city’s top public health official said.
“Our goal is to stay open,” Arwady said. “I don’t expect that this will be an indefinite forever mask requirement.”
Arwady said she doesn’t expect to have to hand down further restrictions or business limits, but warned that if metrics rise into “very high risk” territory, officials might consider imposing indoor capacity limits.
Arwady said eventually enforcing a vaccine mandate like those implemented in several other major cities like New York and San Francisco is not “entirely off the table.”
“We’re not considering a mandate of this at this point, but I think I want to see what happens in some of these other cities,” Arwady said.
Data show that the vaccines, which are widely available to anyone in the city, are one of the best ways to keep people safe from the coronavirus.
About 99.7% of fully vaccinated Chicagoans have not been diagnosed with COVID9 even as the Delta variant rages on.
The highest hospitalization rate for COVID is among unvaccinated Chicagoans 60 and older, Arwady noted, adding that people who are fully vaccinated in Chicago but still get infected are “very unlikely” to require hospitalization.
“If you’ve been waiting to get your vaccine, especially if you’re over 60, Delta is here. Now is the time,” Arwady said. “We want to keep people safe ... and vaccines, clearly based on our Chicago data, is the most important way to do that.”
Kenneth Meyer, acting commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said the mask mandate would apply, among other places, to bars, restaurants, health clubs and common areas of condominiums and apartment buildings. He said masks are also recommended, though not required, in crowded outdoor settings.
Meyer said his department will communicate the guidelines to businesses and offer training Thursday and Friday. Business owners not in compliance likely will get just a warning. “Oviously, if there’s something egregious,” the owner would be cited, Meyer said.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he was “pleased” with the city’s decision to reinstate an indoor mask mandate, adding that that mitigation can “be vital for just furthering the goals that we have to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
At a news conference in Springfield, Pritzker didn’t say whether he might implement a face covering requirement statewide, though the coronavirus is spreading at an alarming rate. All but four of the state’s 102 counties fall into the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s color-coded red “high transmission” category. And three of the remaining four — Whiteside and Lee in western Illinois, and nearby Putnam — are only one category below that, the “substantial transmission” category.
Asked whether his reelection bid — and a fear of angering voters who want to move on from the pandemic — was causing him to refrain from implementing a mask mandate, Pritzker said he’s following the science and that politics hasn’t influenced his decision-making.
“I haven’t been reticent to consider mitigations when they’re necessary and of course we’re always watching the numbers to make sure that we’re bending the curve as we need to,” Pritzker said. “I’m following the science, listening to the doctors. We’re doing what we think is necessary, and if we need to do more than what we’re doing today, we will do that.”
Earlier this month, Pritzker issued a statewide mask requirement for schools. The Democratic governor hasn’t provided an end date for when students, teachers and staff would be able to ditch the face coverings, saying “this virus tends to have cycles to it and variants,” and that face coverings are one way to keep people “safe and healthy in our schools.”
On Tuesday, the League of Chicago Theatres announced its own guidelines, including a mask requirement, saying the venues in the coalition would require audience members to show proof of vaccination or negative COVID test results to gain entry to participating theaters. The protocols will be in effect Sept. 1 through Dec. 31.
The theaters will require masks to be worn at all times at performances and throughout the venues, though, with the city mandate, the league’s guidance might be moot. The new guidelines also apply to all performers, staff and crew at each participating theater.
Chicagoans can request an in-home shot by calling (312) 746-4835. For help finding a dose in suburban Cook County, visit cookcountypublichealth.org or call (833) 308-1988. To find other Illinois providers, visit coronavirus.illinois.gov or call (833) 621-1284.
Contributing: Miriam Di Nunzio