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Pritzker to expand vaccine eligibility, employ ‘dial-like approach’ to reopening state: ‘The end seems truly to be in sight’

The governor announced the expansion of coronavirus vaccine eligibility to all Illinois residents over 16 — except at Chicago sites — starting April 12, and set thresholds for vaccinations and new COVID-19 caseloads for the state to return to normal.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a March news conference. To his left is Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday, announcing the state’s plan to open up vaccines to all Illinoisans over 16 — except Chicagoans — by April 12 and the “bridge” phase to reopening the state. To his left is Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Nearly a year after he issued his first stay-at-home order, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday announced his plan to reopen the state, employing a “bridge” phase that will include increasing capacity limits at museums, zoos and other places.

The governor also announced the expansion of coronavirus vaccine eligibility to all Illinois residents over 16 — except at Chicago sites — starting April 12, and set thresholds for vaccinations and new COVID-19 caseloads for the state to return to normal.

“Although we still are in the midst of a global pandemic, the end seems truly to be in sight,” Pritzker said.

The state can enter that 28-day “bridge” phase to a full reopening when 70% of those 65 and over have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Pritzker expressed optimism about the state being able to return to more normal operations and pointed to the 58% first-dose vaccination rate for seniors, as of Thursday morning.

The state must also maintain a 20% or lower intensive-care-unit bed availability rate and hold steady on COVID-19 and COVID-like illness hospital admissions, mortality rate, and case rate over a 28-day monitoring period.

In the intermediate stage between Phases 4 and 5, museums will see their capacity limitations increase from 25% to 60%. The same limitations will apply to zoos.

Amusement parks will be able to increase capacity from the 25% restriction in Phase 4 to 60% in the intermediate stage. Festivals and general admission outdoor, spectator events can seat 30 people per 1,000 square feet in the bridge phase.

Meetings, conferences and conventions will see their capacity limit increase to either 1,000 people or 60%, whichever is less. The limitations around meetings also apply to theaters and performing arts venues.

The governor said Thursday Illinois will resume normal business operations “when at least 50% of our 16 and over population has received at least one dose.” The state’s mask requirement will be lifted when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends it.

Pritzker wouldn’t put a date on when the state might get to the bridge phase — or a full reopening — but with about 1% of the state’s population receiving the vaccine per day, it could happen “expeditiously.”

“While we’re racing against a tough clock — the new, more dangerous variants that is — it is fully in our power to turn the page on this dark and devastating chapter,” Pritzker said. “These vaccines are our fastest ticket back to hugging our grandkids, eating inside restaurants without worrying about the risks, school dances, community celebrations, all the things that we miss about normal life.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop, Thursday afternoon.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop, Thursday afternoon.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Throughout the pandemic, the governor has given local governments leeway to impose tighter COVID-19 restrictions, but not looser ones, and the city often has done just that, keeping a tighter lid on indoor capacity limits at bars and restaurants.

Citing scarce supply, Chicago has stayed a step behind the state’s vaccination plan for the past month, though any Chicago residents 16 and over will be able to go to any state-supported site to receive a vaccine starting April 12, a Pritzker spokeswoman said.

The city will open appointments to people 16 and older with chronic health conditions as it enters Phase 1C March 29 — more than a month after Pritzker allowed that to happen in other regions.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city, which receives its vaccine shipments separately from the rest of the state, won’t open appointments as allowed in Pritzker’s plan.

“I would like to spend the first month of this 1C period still doing some prioritization so that people [in high-contact jobs] and people with underlying conditions are prioritized above healthy 23-year-old college students,” Arwady said during a separate online Q&A. “Assuming that the vaccine supply is there, we will for sure expand to everybody May 1. Maybe we’ll do it before that if it’s there. … Some of it is just about how much do you have vaccine supply and when.”

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, in January.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Pritzker expressed hope Chicago “will move expeditiously toward opening up [vaccine appointments] even more.

“I think that it will be hard for the city if people who can get vaccinated, who live just beyond the city borders, are able to get an appointment to go get vaccinated, but people who are within the city may not be able to because they haven’t opened that up,” the governor said. “But again, I think that’s up to them.”

As for business operations, city officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot will follow Pritzker’s bridge plan.

Dr. Rachel Rubin, a co-leader of the Cook County Department of Health, said the county had not yet made the decision about whether or not to follow the state in opening up its vaccine eligibility or the bridged reopening.

“We don’t know if we will go as quickly into that bridge, or if we might break that bridge up into sort of different sections, the beginning, medium, and end part of that bridge, we will have to see,” Rubin said. “My inclination at this point is for us to be extremely cautious about opening up, our numbers of new cases have leveled out, they are not continuing to decrease at this moment, they have really leveled out.”

The governor’s new plan appears to allow for fans to attend Bulls and Blackhawks games at the United Center, and also opens the door to conventions — potentially offering a boon to a hospitality industry decimated by the pandemic.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop in March.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during a news conference at the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop, Thursday afternoon.
Pat Nabong/Archivos Sun-Times

That will be up to Lightfoot’s office.

“McCormick Place’s commitment throughout this pandemic has been to act in the best interest of public health and we will continue to do so as we await further information regarding re-opening guidelines for the city of Chicago,” a spokeswoman for the lakeside hall said in a statement. “We stand ready to re-open as soon as public health conditions allow.”

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia, who previously butted heads with the administration in expanding indoor service, called the plan “an important step towards recovery.”

“We have urged Gov. Pritzker to set a path to allow for expanded events with extensive safety measures in place, and this pragmatic approach to loosening restrictions will greatly enhance business opportunities for restaurants, event companies, conventions, and culinary tourism — all of which are critical to Illinois’ economic engine,” Toia said in a statement.

Illinois Retail Merchants Association President Rob Karr called it “a clear path forward to a full re-opening” — one that businesses hope “will be a short one,” he said in a statement.

Chicago Federation of Labor president Bob Reiter said “having a pathway toward reopening helps both workers and their employer plan a more defined path forward. To continue on this pathway to reopening, the health and safety of workers remains an absolute priority.”

The Chicago Federation of Labor has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

Read Gov. Pritzker’s full “bridge phase” reopening plan: