Not so fast: Lightfoot won’t put ‘artificial date’ on lifting mask, proof-of-vaccination mandates

City officials last week said they’d follow the state’s lead in lifting a mask mandate by Feb. 28 — unless COVID-19 numbers worsened. Now, though citing “tremendous progress” against the Omicron surge, the mayor doesn’t want to set what she called an “artificial date.”

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a news conference at City Hall in July 2020.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a City Hall press conference last year, where she was joined by city health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady (left).

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she’s not prepared to “put an artificial date” on lifting Chicago’s mask and proof of vaccine mandates — even though the city is making “tremendous progress” in dealing with the Omicron surge.

When Gov. Pritzker announced last week he would lift his indoor mask mandate for most public settings by Feb. 28, the Chicago Department of Public Health released a statement signaling its intention tofollow the state’s lead on that day unless the metrics take a sharp turn for the worse.

That would have allowed Chicagoans to go bare-faced in grocery stores, restaurants, theaters and most other places, while continuing to wear masks in hospitals, nursing homes and other areas with vulnerable residents, as well as other places where federal masking rules remain in effect, including on mass transit.

And though the numbers are improving, Lightfoot on Monday said, essentially: Not so fast.

She noted Feb. 28 is the “date the state set,” but it’s “not the date that the city set” and the city is free to impose more stringent regulations.

“We are making tremendous progress in kind of climbing down the back slope of the Omicron surge. Probably now for the last three weeks, we’ve seen week after week about a 50% or more decline in cases, which is great progress. We’re still, though, at 500 cases-a-day. Not where we want to be. We’re still seeing too many people dying every day from COVID,” Lightfoot said.

The mayor said she and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady would have “more to say” on the city’s mandates later this week, but “I don’t want to put an artificial date on when this is gonna happen when we still see some danger signs in the data. We’re using the same set of data and metrics that we’ve used throughout the pandemic. We’re making progress. But we’re not there yet.”

Since Jan. 3, Chicago has required restaurant, bar and gym patrons to show proof of vaccination and a photo ID. Arwady has argued the requirement has increased vaccination rates.

Why, then, would Lightfoot even consider lifting the proof-of-vaccine mandate in the coming weeks when it’s been an effective tool in encouraging people to get vaccinated?

“It’s all about balance. We’ve heard a lot from the folks who are most affected — particularly those businesses — about what their challenges are in enforcing the vaccine mandate, but also the impact on their businesses,” the mayor said.

“We’re always gonna be guided by the sciences and the data. And that’s why I said I don’t want to put an artificial date on it. We’re trending in the right direction. We have some expectations about what we may be able to do if we keep moving in the right direction. But we’re not there yet.”

Pritzker last week said the Feb. 28 target date would not apply to schools, where his masking mandate would remain in effect. Lightfoot on Monday likewise indicated no change in position on school masking, either — though the principals and presidents of five Catholic high schools — Marist, Brother Rice, Mount Carmel, Mother Macauley and St. Rita — wrote a joint letter to the mayor and Arwady urging them to rescind the mandate immediately.

Whenever Chicago gets around to lifting its mask and vaccine mandates, one thing will not change: the requirement that city employees be vaccinated and report their vaccination status on the city’s data portal.

That mandate took effect on Dec. 31 for all city employees except rank-and-file police officers. The vaccination mandate for them remains in the hands of an arbitrator. Scores of city employees have been placed on no-pay status. But, none of have been terminated.

“We gave people notice in August that this was critically important. Having a safe workplace is something that … we have an obligation to do. And my expectation is that people will comply with the mandate,” the mayor said.

“We’ve given ample, ample, ample opportunities for them to be in compliance. We’re worked with them. We’ve tried to meet them where they are. But, yes, there are some people who have decided that they’d rather not be a city employee rather than get vaccinated. And that’s their choice. But city of Chicago employees will be vaccinated.”

As of last week, 503 employees of the Chicago Fire Department and 2,886 Chicago Police Department employees were still unvaccinated. It was not known how many of those employees had received medical exemptions or were on medical leave.

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