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Pritzker OKs indoor dining in Will, Kankakee counties, crediting COVID-19 improvement to ‘neighbors doing right by neighbors’

The resumption of indoor service in the suburbs capped a week of high but encouraging coronavirus numbers that saw the statewide testing positivity rate fall consistently after a mid-summer surge. 

The dining booths at Formento’s Italian restaurant in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood in August.
The dining booths at Formento’s Italian restaurant in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood in August.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Indoor service is back on the menu at bars and restaurants across Chicago’s far south suburbs after an improved COVID-19 testing positivity rate prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday to lift restrictions on Will and Kankakee counties.

The eased coronavirus guidelines were set to kick in Friday evening, also allowing gatherings to increase from 25 to 50 people. The Democratic governor called it a “testament to the entire state and to the power of community” as he dished out the good news at an unrelated news conference in Rock Island.

“Let it also be a testament to community leaders who stand on the side of science, to collaboration between [the Illinois Department of Public Health] and local health departments, and a testament to neighbors doing right by neighbors,” Pritzker said. “We can’t outrun this virus, but with masks and distancing, with hand washing and respect for public health, and for each other, we can beat it back enough to keep our businesses and our schools open, and our neighborhoods safer.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a press conference in Rock Island on Friday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a press conference in Rock Island on Friday.
State of Illinois live stream

Pritzker’s health team banned indoor service in the region three weeks ago after the testing positivity rate — which indicates how quickly the virus is spreading — jumped over 8%. That’s the threshold set by the state to trigger rollbacks in reopening efforts.

Will and Kankakee counties are now down to 5.6% positivity, sending them back to the Phase 4 reopening guidelines in place for most of the state.

The Metro East region was hit with restrictions a few weeks before Will and Kankakee, but Pritzker initially allowed bars and restaurants there to continue serving customers inside — a concession to local officials that the governor later called “a mistake.”

So when the south suburbs were hit with an indoor dining ban Aug. 26 — while it was still business as usual at Metro East restaurants with positivity nearing 10% — Will County officials including state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, slammed Pritzker for “inconsistencies in public policy.”

The governor later imposed dining restrictions in Metro East, which are still in place with the region at 8% positivity.

Hastings said Friday “our local businesses cannot afford another setback. We must remain vigilant for the sake of economic recovery and public health.”

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The resumption of indoor service in the suburbs capped a week of high but encouraging coronavirus numbers that saw the statewide testing positivity rate fall consistently after a mid-summer surge.

State public health officials announced 2,120 more residents were confirmed to carry the virus among the latest batch of nearly 62,000 test results. The virus also killed 20 more Illinoisans, raising the state’s pandemic death toll to 8,411 since March.

Illinois has added an average of 1,961 new cases per day so far this month — not far from the rate of 2,172 per day during a peak month of May — but booming testing numbers mean the average testing positivity rate over the last week is at 3.6%, as low as it’s been in about two months.

Counties considered to be at a coronavirus “warning level” are marked orange.
Counties considered to be at a coronavirus “warning level” are marked orange.
Illinois Department of Public Health

The list of counties deemed to be at a COVID-19 “warning level” also shrank Friday to 24. That’s still almost a quarter of the entire state, but as many as 30 have previously been flagged for coronavirus “risk indicators” such as rising case and death rates.

Notably absent from the warning list are any Chicago-area counties. Suburban Cook, Lake, DuPage, Will and Kane all have alternately worked their way off the list over the last two months. The city is down to 4.9% positivity, while all its surrounding regions are below 6%.

Current warning-level counties seeing COVID-19 outbreaks tied to college parties, schools and other gathering points are now mostly clustered in southern Illinois: Bond, Bureau, Cass, Clinton, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, DeWitt, Edwards, Effingham, Greene, Jasper, Jo Daviess, Lawrence, Madison, Marion, Rock Island, St. Clair, Shelby, Washington, Wayne, Williamson, Wabash and Union.

More than 270,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Illinois among almost 5 million tests administered. An additional 236 deaths and 2,198 infections are considered to have been probable but untested cases.

As of Thursday night, 1,481 Illinois coronavirus patients were hospitalized, with 329 in intensive care units and 149 on ventilators.