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From mask must to mask ask: Chicago adopts CDC guidelines, but still advises covering your face

City officials “strongly advise businesses to verify that individuals are fully vaccinated,” but it’s up to them how to do that. Dr. Allison Arwady acknowledged many of them “may not have the capacity to do that,” so they’re advised — but not required — to keep masking policies in place until Chicago lifts all pandemic restrictions. 

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, shows off her “I got my COVID-19 vaccine” sticker in January of 2021.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, shows off her “I got my COVID-19 vaccine” sticker after receiving her second dose in January.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Chicago’s top doctor would love for fully vaccinated residents to keep wearing their masks, but she’s not telling them they must.

Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady on Tuesday announced the city will follow the state by falling in line with controversial new guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allow immunized people to roam restaurants, stores and most other settings without a mask — even though there’s no surefire way to verify a person’s vaccination status.

“Enforcement is a challenge,” Arwady said at a City Hall news conference. ”Part of the decision here around moving from a mask mandate to a mask advisory is recognizing that much of the country at this point has really moved away from mandates. … At some level here, we are really needing folks to be doing the right thing.”

That means the honor system will be in place for most venues except buildings owned by the city of Chicago, plus health care settings, schools, public transit and other “congregate settings” where masks are still required for all.

City officials “strongly advise businesses to verify that individuals are fully vaccinated,” but it’s up to them how to do that. Arwady acknowledged many of them “may not have the capacity to do that,” so they’re advised — but not required — to keep masking policies in place until Chicago lifts all pandemic restrictions as expected later this summer.

“We ask businesses and other settings to post a sign on the door letting the public know their current masking policy, so the public can choose whether to enter,” Arwady said.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady gives an update on COVID-19 in Chicago during a news conference at City Hall on Tuesday.
Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady gives an update on COVID-19 in Chicago during a news conference at City Hall on Tuesday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

About 48% of all Chicagoans have gotten at least one shot, and only 38% are fully vaccinated, and “many of our communities that have been the hardest-hit by COVID-19 have even lower vaccination rates,” she said.

So if you want to keep wearing that mask — as Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Arwady have said they will — the commissioner urges you to keep covering up.

“A mask is mostly about protecting others: I wear my mask to protect you, you wear your mask to protect me,” Arwady said. “It helps keep my germs to myself, but it is a tangible sign that I’m thinking about somebody besides myself. I’m thinking about the greater good, and masks and distancing and hand washing have gotten us this far.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, center, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, listen during a news conference at the Thompson Center in February.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, center, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, listen during a news conference at the Thompson Center in February.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file.

And to those who do decide to go bare faced: “Please be kind,” Arwady said. “Regardless of mandates, we expect many Chicagoans to continue to wear masks in public spaces for a variety of reasons,” like protecting fellow residents with underlying health conditions.

The unmasking comes as COVID-19 infection rates fall to their lowest points in two months across the city and the rest of the state.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 1,495 new cases were diagnosed among 58,222 tests, lowering the average statewide positivity rate to 2.3%. That figure suggests the virus is spreading at its slowest rate since St. Patrick’s 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.

Metrics have improved significantly in most other states, too, meaning Chicagoans now have more flexibility to travel without quarantining or showing proof of a negative test, as advised by the city’s public health department.

The agency updated its emergency travel quarantine order to include just seven states considered hot spots, from which travelers must self-isolate or have a clean test upon arrival in Chicago: Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado, Florida, Maine, West Virginia, and Washington.

The quarantine order — which hasn’t resulted in any fines in almost a year since it was implemented — doesn’t apply to people who are two weeks removed from their final vaccine dose.

The city’s latest travel advisory map.
The city’s latest travel advisory map.
Chicago Department of Public Health

But fewer people are signing up for shots each day. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported just 25,936 vaccinations were performed Monday, the state’s lowest one-day total in two weeks.

That’s partly because a data reporting issue left out some doses administered at pharmacies, but vaccine demand has shrunk by more than half in Illinois since mid-April.

The state hit an all-time high seven-day average of nearly 133,000 shots given per day April 12. That rate is now just 56,593 — as low as it’s been since the end of February, back when scarce supply was the biggest issue facing the state.

Arwady said she hopes the new mask guidance “spurs confidence in vaccine and encourages you if you’ve been on the fence. Now’s the time.”

The virus is still claiming dozens of lives per day. The state reported 21 additional COVID-19 deaths, raising Illinois’ death toll 22,466 since last March.

To sign up for a vaccine appointment in Chicago, visit zocdoc.com or call (312) 746-4835.

For suburban Cook County sites, visit vaccine.cookcountyil.gov or call (833) 308-1988.

To find providers elsewhere, visit coronavirus.illinois.gov or call (833) 621-1284.