Suburban Cook County was cleared to return to Phase 4 of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan Tuesday, meaning bars and restaurants can serve larger parties indoors.
The move down from Tier 1 COVID-19 mitigations also gives more leeway to local officials to expand indoor dining capacity beyond 25%, but Cook County health officials said they’d opt to keep that limit in place.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot drew the ire of the hospitality industry when she ordered the same as the city moved back to Phase 4 over the weekend, arguing that health officials need to gauge the potential impact of the initial Jan. 23 restaurant reopening before allowing more people to gather inside.
Party sizes can increase from four up to 10 in Cook County in Phase 4, though Chicago cut that to six people per table.
Phase 4 — which applied to all of Illinois until Gov. J.B. Pritzker instituted statewide mitigations in November amid a record-breaking case surge — also allows for bowling alleys and skating rinks to reopen at the lesser of 50 customers or 50% capacity.
As infection rates have fallen back to their lowest levels in about four months, eight of the state’s 11 regions have shed the tiered mitigations. The Will-Kankakee county region did Monday. The two suburban regions composed of Kane, DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties are still under Tier 1 rules but are on pace to get to Phase 4 Wednesday.
Suburban Cook County earned the eased restrictions by reporting three consecutive days with a testing positivity rate below 6.5%, in addition to meeting other hospital metrics.
Statewide, the seven-day average statewide testing positivity rate, which experts use to gauge how rapidly the virus is spreading, is down to 3.9% — less than half what it was a month ago, and as low as it’s been since Oct. 9.
On Tuesday, Illinois reported its smallest number of new cases (2,304) since Oct. 4, while COVID-19 hospital admissions are down about 60% from the November peak, with 2,447 beds occupied statewide as of Monday night.
The Illinois Department of Public Health also announced the virus killed 47 more residents, including 29 from the Chicago area. The death toll is up to 19,306 among the 1.1 million-plus residents who have been infected over the past year.
The virus has claimed 60 Illinois lives on average over the past week, but that fatality rate is down from 116 per day a month ago.
Despite the state’s progress, officials are pleading with residents to keep masking and social distancing — especially since nine cases of the more infectious UK variant of the virus were identified in the Chicago area last month.
More than 1 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have gone into Illinois arms so far, Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike told a congressional committee, but only about 227,000 residents have received the required two doses. That’s not even 1.8% of the population.
Ezike testified that the state needs the federal government “to align their efforts with ours to help solve practical operational issues.”
“Of course we need increased supply of vaccine, as well as resources to quickly administer the vaccine,” Illinois’ top doctor said. “We need an improved communication channel and fixes to tools provided to states. The federal government should provide states with clear consistent projections for vaccine allocations, to allow and enable planning weeks into the future.”