Restaurant vaccine mandate, indoor mask rules could be rolled back ‘soon’ if COVID cases stay in free fall

The turnaround has been especially pronounced in Chicago, where cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all down by more than 40% since last week.

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Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady administers the second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Mayor Lori Lightfoot last year.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady administers the second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Mayor Lori Lightfoot last year.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The city’s vaccine mandate for bar and restaurant patrons could be rescinded “quite soon” if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations keep falling as drastically as they have over the past two weeks, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday.

Other coronavirus mitigations, including the statewide indoor mask mandate, could be reconsidered soon, too, as metrics improve across Illinois following the Omicron variant surge.

The masking decision is up to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who said he’s “thrilled” with Illinois’ improvement after its largest ever case spike, but the governor wouldn’t put a timeline on a potential rollback of the precautionary measures that have defined his pandemic response.

The officials offered those nuggets of cautious optimism as the Illinois Department of Public Health reported the state’s latest 8,665 positive tests — a number that would’ve sounded alarm bells in the fall, but that now represents a 66% decline in cases over the past three weeks.

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.

COVID hospitalizations have shrunk by 48% over the same period, from an all-time high of 7,380 beds occupied Jan. 12 down to 3,805 as of Monday night.

The virus has claimed an average of 109 Illinois lives per day over the last week, including 123 deaths reported Tuesday. But that tragic rate has fallen by about 17% since last week.

The turnaround has been even more pronounced in Chicago over the last week, which has seen daily cases dip by 48%, new hospital admissions by 41% and deaths by 44%— but those metrics still remain at levels comparable to the peaks of previous surges. That’s why mitigations remain in place for now, Arwady said.

“We’re not going to keep the vaccination requirement just because we like it. We’re keeping it because the risk remains higher at this point,” she said at a City Hall news conference. “And yeah, I am feeling confident that it will be able to come off relatively soon, and if we keep seeing a 50% drop week over week, that could be quite soon.”

As for Pritzker’s indoor mask mandate, the governor pointed to it as one reason Illinois is faring better than other Midwest states where positivity rates are still in the double digits while Illinois is back below 7%.

“We actually weathered [the Omicron surge] as well or better than most, and it’s because we’ve kept in place a mask requirement not only in schools with adults and kids, but also indoors,” Pritzker said at an unrelated news conference in Springfield. “I want to get rid of masks as fast as we can when it is feasible to keep people safe.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks to reporters at a news conference in Springfield on Tuesday.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks to reporters at a news conference in Springfield on Tuesday.

Screen image.

“The declining numbers of people going into the hospital every day — it’s really plummeting, which I’m thrilled about,” Pritzker continued. “The better our hospitalization numbers look, the better all the other numbers look, the more likely it is that we can move to different mitigations or, you know, remove mitigations altogether.”

The biggest factor in improving those numbers, officials have said, is getting more people vaccinated and boosted. During the Omicron surge, unvaccinated Chicagoans have proven twice as likely to contract COVID compared to their fully vaccinated neighbors — and 10 times as likely to end up in a hospital bed.

Nearly 20% of eligible residents still haven’t gotten a shot.

For help finding a shot, or to schedule a free in-home vaccination appointment, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.

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