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Chicago has no plans yet for vaccine mandate for restaurants and gyms, Arwady says, but city is watching New York closely

While the Big Apple tightens restrictions, Chicago is counting on getting more residents vaccinated and trusting them to mask up indoors as the Delta variant of COVID-19 drives the latest nationwide surge. 

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks at a City Hall news conference on Sunday.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks at a City Hall news conference on Sunday.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

City officials are interested in New York’s new COVID-19 vaccination requirement for indoor restaurants and gyms, but such a mandate is not on the table yet for Chicago even as cases surge to the highest levels seen in three months.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady on Tuesday thanked bars, restaurants and other venues that have implemented their own vaccination requirements for workers and customers — and she encouraged more businesses to do so while the city considers its next move.

“It’s a really big decision to try to impose something like that on an entire class of businesses, and my hope would be more that people who are taking COVID seriously would actually want to go to businesses that have made those decisions,” Arwady said at a City Hall news conference. “Certainly we’re interested in this. We’ll be watching to see how this plays out [in New York City], but we don’t have a current plan to do something like that at the city level.”

Chicago’s federal U.S. District Court and bankruptcy court became the latest institutions to implement a vaccine requirement for all employees and contractors, with U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer announcing all employees and contractors must attest to their vaccination status by Aug. 16, according to a press release from the court.

During an interview on WVON-AM (1690), Mayor Lori Lightfoot said vaccination guidelines are “only going to spread” elsewhere, in part because customers are saying, “If you’re not vaccinated, I don’t want to be near you.”

But she noted Chicago is nowhere near another shutdown.

“We’re seeing a modest uptick in [intensive care patients] and hospitalizations, but not to the point where we’re worried about our health care system buckling,” Lightfoot said.

The city is working with the Illinois Department of Public Health on developing “a more standard way for people to be able to show proof of vaccination,” according to Arwady — who noted that rather than a digital passport like the one being used in New York, it would simply make it easier for residents to access their vaccination records.

So while the Big Apple tightens restrictions again, the Second City is counting on getting more residents vaccinated and trusting them to mask up indoors as the Delta variant of COVID-19 drives the latest nationwide spike.

Chicago added five states to its emergency travel order requiring a quarantine period or a negative test for unvaccinated travelers from a list that now comprises 19 states and two U.S. territories, including nearly all of the South. Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, South Carolina, Utah and Puerto Rico are the latest destinations considered hot spots.

Chicago Department of Public Health

And it’s getting worse across Illinois, too. Public health officials announced 2,682 new cases of the disease, the highest-one-day total since the first week of May.

The average statewide positivity rate is up to a 16-week high of 4.4%, matching the top infection rate Illinois reached during its previous most recent surge in April.

And while COVID-19 deaths — a lagging indicator of the pandemic waves — have remained mostly level so far in this surge, nightly hospitalizations have topped 1,000 for the first time since the beginning of June — almost tripling since the start of July.

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.

The surge is largely driven by downstate counties with vaccination rates that are less than half the statewide rate of 73% of eligible residents who have gotten at least one shot.

But cases are up 40% in Chicago compared to last week, with an average of 234 people testing positive each day.

“The Delta variant is here. We’ve been watching it rise over the last few weeks. I expect that to continue, and being vaccinated is by far the most important thing to protect yourself,” Arwady said. “But while we get through this Delta surge, as a reminder, we’re asking everybody regardless of vaccination status to put that mask on when you’re indoors.”

Any Chicagoan can request an in-home vaccination by calling (312) 746-4835. For help finding a shot in suburban Cook County, visit cookcountypublichealth.org or call (833) 308-1988. To find other Illinois providers, visit coronavirus.illinois.gov or call (833) 621-1284.

Contributing: Jon Seidel and Fran Spielman