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Chicago eases outdoor dining restrictions; most indoor rules remain in place

The state also announced 118,000 more COVID-19 vaccinations had been given in Illinois as coronavirus cases in Chicago jumped more than 20% in the past week.

Outdoor dining tables sit empty outside Tavern On Rush and Carmine’s, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.
Outdoor dining tables sit empty outside Tavern On Rush and Carmine in October.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday authorized bars, restaurants and outdoor performance venues to increase outdoor capacity even as she sounded the alarm about a troubling surge in coronavirus cases among young people.

The news arrived as Chicago’s coronavirus testing positivity rate took another troubling step up.

What Lightfoot calls an “alarming trend and uptick” reminiscent of the surge Chicago saw in October is concentrated among 18-to-39-year-olds living in North Side neighborhoods including Lincoln Park, Old Town, Old Irving, Dunning and Portage Park.

“This is a cohort that we’ve had varied challenges throughout the pandemic reaching. Young people. We were all young once. We all think we’re invincible. We never think something bad is going to happen to us. And the reality is that young people have gotten sick. Very sick. And young people have died from COVID,” Lightfoot said in a telephone conference with City Hall reporters.

“We can’t do bar crawls. We can’t do mass events. And I’m concerned with spring break happening — both for colleges and schools — that this is a concerning trend,” the mayor said.

Tough as it is to break through, the city needs to “reach them where they are”—through “a tremendous amount of messaging through texting and social media.”

“We’re gonna continue to push to reach this group and say, `COVID is real. It has not gone away from our city. It’s still very much part of our present….The vaccines are obviously giving us a ray of light at the end of a very dark tunnel,” but it’s not time to let down your guard.

Even as she sounded the alarm about the surge in coronavirus cases among young people chomping at the bit to return to freedom, the city is loosening the reins on outdoor events in several ways:

• Bars and restaurants can now serve up to 10 people at outdoor tables spaced six feet apart.

• Outdoor weddings and other social gatherings can now serve 100 people or 50% capacity, whichever is less.

• Outdoor theaters, performance venues and other “seated spectator events” with capacity “greater than or equal to 200” can operate at 25% capacity.

• Outdoor recreation can serve multiple groups, each with a 50 maximum while health and fitness centers can increase the size of outdoor classes to 100 people.

• Churches, synagogues and other religious organizations can hold outdoor services and events with no capacity limit, provided six feet of social distance is maintained.

Lightfoot denied that she was sending mixed messages by warning young people while relaxing restrictions on outdoor events.

“The issue that we face really isn’t around outdoor events and we’re still being prudent there. The issue that we’re seeing is people not following the public health guidance around masking, social distancing, particularly indoor activities. That’s where we’re seeing the largest growth in new cases and outbreaks,” she said.

“A year ago, we didn’t know a lot about this virus. All we really knew was that it was spreading quickly and that it was deadly. We now have a year’s worth of data…to really understand how this virus spreads and who are the people that are most at risk. So, we can be a lot more targeted in our interventions. And that’s what we plan to do.”

Throughout the pandemic, Lightfoot has not hesitated to play the heavy.

She shut down the lakefront because Chicagoans couldn’t be trusted to maintain their social distance. She drove around the city breaking up large groups of young people.

On Thursday, the mayor said she’s not eager to play the tough-guy role again, but she will if the city’s targeted messaging falls on deaf ears.

“We’ll see if those numbers turn in another direction…If they don’t, we know what we need to do,” she said, pointing to a 23% surge in daily cases and an 18% rise in Chicago’s test positivity rate, all in the last week.

“The last thing in the world that we want to do is shut everything back down like we’re seeing for example in Europe, but we’re concerned.”

People approach to receive doses of a COVID-19 vaccine at the United Center’s drive-thru vaccination site on Tuesday afternoon. More than 5 million shots have been given across Illinois.
People approach to receive doses of a COVID-19 vaccine at the United Center’s drive-thru vaccination site on Tuesday afternoon. More than 5 million shots have been given across Illinois.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Also on Thursday, state officials reported 2,190 new COVID-19 cases, diagnosed among 90,101 tests. That lowered the average statewide positivity rate a tenth of a percent, down to 2.7%, according to the state Department of Public Health.

But Chicago’s regional infection rate rose for an eighth straight day up to 3.4%, according to Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

That figure, which indicates how rapidly the virus is spreading, was at 2.7% less than two weeks ago, marking a net increase of 26% — all while the number of tests performed has stayed flat, Arwady said during an online Q&A.

New COVID-19 cases by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

Part of that rise is “probably” due to St. Patrick’s Day parties, Arwady said, while a more relaxed attitude among younger people drives the city’s latest COVID-19 spike.

“We’ve seen some outbreaks and some major clusters in younger people in some university socializing settings, and some of those are bars,” Arwady said. “We’re talking 20-something people in some cases where we’re seeing clustering. It’s just one person with COVID initially, but then there are people getting together, not wearing a mask and not keeping their guard up.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday raised concerns about increases in the statewide infection rate, saying while the state is still “on course” to loosen more business restrictions next month, that plan could be put on hold if metrics deteriorate.

The state reported 118,544 more people received COVID-19 vaccine doses. More than 5.1 million shots have been doled out since December, with 1.9 million residents fully immunized — just over 15% of the population. Illinois is averaging 101,175 doses administered per day.

COVID-19 vaccine doses administered by day

Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times

Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

Graph not displaying properly? Click here.

Coronavirus hospital admissions have increased slightly over the past week but remain close to all-time low levels, with 1,251 beds occupied Wednesday night.

But the virus claimed 35 more lives, including 10 Cook County residents. The state’s average daily death rate has fallen by almost half compared to late February.

Since last March, more than 1.2 million residents have tested positive for the virus, and 21,171 of them have died.