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Just five weeks to reopening? Or two months? Pritzker and Lightfoot at odds, yet again, on COVID-19 restrictions

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that barring another surge of infections, he’ll let the state fully reopen June 11.  It’s the clearest timeline Pritzker has set for most of the state to return to business as usual — and one that puts him in disagreement with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is sticking to a more conservative potential reopening date of July 4.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference at McCormick Place, Tuesday morning as Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference at McCormick Place, Tuesday morning as Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

An ordeal that left many feeling like there was no end in sight might finally be coming to a close.

With coronavirus case numbers heading in the right direction, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday announced he’ll lift more COVID-19 business restrictions across Illinois next week — and barring another surge of infections, he’ll let the state fully reopen June 11.

Fourteen months into the pandemic, it’s the clearest timeline Pritzker has set for most of the state to return to business as usual — and one that puts him at odds yet again with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is sticking to a more conservative potential reopening date of July 4 for Chicago.

But even with the light at the end of the tunnel “getting brighter and brighter,” it’s still no sure bet, the governor cautioned during a Loop news conference.

“This good news comes with a caveat. We have all seen throughout this pandemic that this virus and its variants have proven to be unpredictable,” Pritzker said. “Metrics that look strong today are far from a guarantee of how things will look a week, two weeks, a month from now. We saw that last August and again last March.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks to the media on Thursday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks to the media on Thursday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

That was the last time a spike in cases threw off the governor’s reopening plan. Illinois was on track to get to Pritzker’s intermediate “bridge phase” in late March until cases started trending back upward.

Now, with Illinois’ coronavirus testing positivity rate back down to 3% — its lowest point in six weeks — and more than 60% of the population at least partially vaccinated, the state is in line to get to the bridge May 14.

That means museums, amusement parks and zoos will be able to increase capacity from 25% to 60%, while festivals and other general admission outdoor events will be able to seat 30 people per 1,000 square feet. Additionally, meetings, conferences and conventions will see their capacity limit increase to either 1,000 people or 60% — whichever is less — with the same applying to theaters and performing arts venues.

After that, as long as residents follow basic COVID-19 precautions, keep signing up for vaccinations and help stave off another spike in infections, all of Pritzker’s business restrictions will be lifted June 11, he said.

“We want to keep moving forward,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. “To do that, we need to get more and more individuals vaccinated, and we’re working to make the vaccines available in as many locations as possible.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens as state Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike briefs the media in May.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens as state Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike briefs the media on Thursday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Pritzker’s timeline would put the rest of the state about three weeks ahead of Chicago, where Lightfoot earlier this week said she’s aiming to fully open for business by July 4.

The mayor’s office said the city is “on course” to move to Pritzker’s bridge phase along with the rest of the state, but will stick to its own reopening timeline.

“While we have made significant progress and look forward to taking this step next week, we will only be able to fully reopen when we see continued improvement in COVID metrics and more widespread vaccine uptake,” a mayoral spokesperson said in an email. “We call on all Chicagoans to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to continue following the safety precautions so that we can experience all that Chicago has to offer this summer.”

Throughout the pandemic, Pritzker has given local governments leeway to impose COVID-19 restrictions that are tighter than his own, and Lightfoot often has done just that.

“I know that the mayor has said July 4 is what she’s aiming at,” Pritzker said. “I’m sure that she’s motivated to try to get there sooner, but this is where we can move to as a state.”

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.

Still, the governor stressed it might not happen if people don’t keep signing up for shots.

With the latest 99,599 COVID-19 shots that went into Illinois arms Wednesday, more than a third of the population is now fully vaccinated, but the state is now averaging just 70,063 shots given per day over the past week — a rate that has fallen almost in half since April 12.

And despite the state’s progress in lowering case counts, the virus is still causing grief across the state. In addition to 1,778 new cases of the disease, officials reported 40 more COVID-19 deaths, including a man in his 30s from McLean County in central Illinois.

The state’s death toll is up to 22,136 among more than 1.3 million residents who have tested positive over since March 2020.

“This pandemic is not over. But if we’re going to truly end it, we have to make sure that we don’t see another surge in the virus, and the best way to do that is for everyone to get vaccinated,” Pritzker said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine on March 24 in Springfield.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine on March 24 in Springfield.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

As part of that effort, Pritzker announced doses are now being allocated to more than a thousand private physicians’ offices.

The life saving vaccines remain free and readily available on a walk-up basis at government-run mass vaccination sites as well as many Walgreens, Walmart and CVS pharmacies.

For help finding an 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.