Chicago lifting mask and vaccine mandates on Feb. 28 but will keep masks in schools for now

Rather than risk yet another confrontation with the Chicago Teachers Union, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez will follow the agreement they struck with CTU to end a dispute that canceled classes for five days last month.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot puts on a face mask while listening as Dr. Allison Arwady speaks to reporters, during a press conference announcing the city’s plans to lift its mask and proof-of-vaccine mandates at City Hall, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot puts on a face mask while listening as Dr. Allison Arwady speaks to reporters, during a press conference announcing the city’s plans to lift its mask and proof-of-vaccine mandates at City Hall, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Chicago will lift its mask and proof-of-vaccine mandates next week, but Chicago Public School students, teachers and employees must keep their masks on — at least for the time being.

Starting this coming Monday, patrons of restaurants, bars and gyms will be free to take their masks off and keep their vaccine cards in their wallets, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady announced at a City Hall news conference Tuesday.

“It’s important for us to recognize this moment for what it is: a huge step forward in our effort to overcome COVID-19,” Lightfoot said. “We would not have been in a position — even a few weeks ago — to be making this kind of announcement today.”

But rather than risk yet another confrontation with the Chicago Teachers Union — and with vaccination rates varying dramatically between school communities — Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said they will abide by the agreement struck with CTU that ended a dispute that canceled classes for five days last month. The safety agreement with the teachers union mandates masks in schools until August.

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“We have made great progress in recent weeks against this virus, and we do not want to jeopardize that progress by moving too quickly,” the district said in a statement released later Tuesday. “We look forward to the day when we can be mask-optional at CPS, but we still need to get more students vaccinated across our District, and we still need to work with our public health and labor partners on the best way to preserve a safe in-person learning environment for all.”

The CTU said in a statement it was “glad that CPS will continueto honor the safety agreement that our members sacrificed four days of pay [for] last month ... despite a right-wing legal attack to remove public health protections.”

Still, a lawsuit by CPS parents in Mount Greenwood against the mandate could impact the situation going forward. Mask mandates already have been removed in more than 150 school districts around the state after a judge blocked Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s school mask requirement.

Transit, health care will keep masks

The mayor noted that masks would continue to be required on public transit, in health care settings and in other congregate spaces, following federal mandates and CDC guidance.

Lightfoot also urged understanding of individual decisions, something that has been in short supply in recent weeks during the raging controversy over masks that has divided the nation.

“Many residents may continue to wear masks in public spaces for a variety of reasons —even if they are vaccinated or as more mandates and advisories fade. ... Also, some venues may continue to impose their own mitigation efforts to keep their clients and customers safe. That is their right. And we must respect it,” Lightfoot said.

Noting that she caught a mild case of COVID-19, Lightfoot said she intends to continue wearing a mask, particularly in restaurants where diners will soon have no idea whether other customers are vaccinated.

“I don’t want to put myself at risk. ... That’s my personal choice,” Lightfoot said.

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia welcomed the mayor’s decision to lift the mandates, keeping to the same statewide date set by Pritzker.

“We’re going back to a sense of normalcy. That’s what the general public wants to see. And if operators still want to impose mask mandates at their individual restaurants, they can. I think there might be a few,” Toia said.

Since Jan. 3, Chicago has required restaurant, bar and gym patrons to show proof of vaccination and a photo ID.

Rudina Alihajdaraj, a hostess with Pequod’s Pizza, inspects a COVID-19 vaccination card on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, the first day that proof of vaccination mandate is required to eat inside at Chicago restaurants.

Rudina Alihajdaraj, a hostess with Pequod’s Pizza, inspects a COVID-19 vaccination card on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, the first day that proof of vaccination mandate is required to eat inside at Chicago restaurants.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The requirement forced restaurants and bars already struggling with a shortage of staff to reassign some workers to check vaccination cards and IDs — or ask beleaguered wait staff to do it.

Either way, it’s been a burden that has occasionally resulted in confrontations between employees and customers, Toia said.

“It has been difficult. When you get a party of five or six that comes in, three or four might have the vaccine and a couple don’t. Then, a party of five leaves because all five of ’em do not have the vaccine. That’s tough. It’s been a tough January and February for restaurant operators,” he said.

The mayor acknowledged that the mask and proof of vaccine mandates have been a “challenge to enforce and a challenge to the bottom lines” of restaurants.

The move to lift the mandates comes after the bottom dropped out on the Omicron surge.

As of Tuesday, Chicago’s average daily case rate was 283 — down 37% from the 452 cases-a-day just one week ago. Hospitalizations were down 29% — to a daily average of 27. Deaths were down 51 % over the last week — from 9.7 last week to 4.7.

The city’s positivity rate was 1.5%. That’s down from 2% a week ago.

Even by the mayor’s own standards for lifting mitigations, Chicago now passes the test with flying colors.

Lightfoot was asked Tuesday whether the declaration of independence from masks and proof-of-vaccine mandates marks an end to a pandemic that has dragged on for two years.

“From your lips to God’s ears,” she replied. “We really don’t know.”

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