The masks were off and mouths and lips were on full display Monday at many grocery stores, bars and restaurants as COVID-19 restrictions were eased.
Deborah Bjurstrom, a retired nurse, gave unmasked people a thumbs up as she exited a Target store on Addison Street in East Irving Park.
“Me, I want to breathe. And my glasses!” she said, shouting with joy thinking about her spectacles not fogging up because of a mask.
There were a good mix of masked and unmasked shoppers at the Target, as well as at the Jewel grocery store a couple blocks west.
One shopper, a woman in her 20s who works at a veterinarian’s office, said she was keeping her mask on and planned to continue social distancing.
“This group project of masking has shown me not to trust everything,” she said, pointing to mask mandates that have gone away in the past, only to reappear as the virus surged again.
She wasn’t convinced the current easing of restrictions wasn’t just another lull in the COVID storm.
“I hope it is, but I am not sure yet,” she said.
Chicago lifted its mask mandate and proof-of-vaccination requirement in most settings Monday, though individual businesses still have the option to implement their own rules. And people are still required to wear a mask in certain places, like on public transit or in health care settings.
“People are feeling great about it,” said Nazzie Dehghani, manager at Athena Greek Restaurant, 212 S. Halsted St., about the end of the city’s mask mandate.
“People are feeling liberated,” she added. “I’ve already had so many phone calls. People asking about masks, about proof of vaccination.”
Also among those celebrating the end of city-imposed restrictions were the owners of The Dearborn restaurant, who shared lunch with two top city officials.
“I am glad to say we made it — it’s been two very long, stressful years.” said Clodagh Lawless, co-owner of The Dearborn. “Obviously the bigger picture is the health and safety of every person in our communities and the United States; however, there is a reality that our health and wellness depend on our livelihood. And our livelihood was taken away from us.”
Lawless said the last couple of months have been particularly bad for business as the Omicron variant took hold of the city during the holidays and drove up cases and hospitalizations. Then they were forced to check diners’ vaccination cards at the start of the year.
If they turned away one person, it was too many, she said.
But lunch Monday with Ken Meyer, commissioner of the city’s Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection, and Dr. Jennifer Seo, the chief medical director for the city’s Department of Public Health, signaled a much-needed change, she said.
“While we always haven’t agreed with the decisions that have been made, clearly, but we understand the ‘why,’ and the ‘why’ is why we are standing here today,” Lawless said.
Meyer said it was a “great day” in Chicago with masks becoming optional in most settings.
“While the government is no longer requiring it, I hope that everyone respects other people’s choice to wear a mask,” Meyer said.
Meyer said he walked around the Loop on Monday morning and noticed about 60% of people he saw were wearing masks.
Seo said the city will continue to follow coronavirus guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She stressed that Chicago is in a good position now.
“Here in the city of Chicago, we are at low risk, which is why we are able to make masks optional in our public spaces,” Seo said. “We are going to continue to assess the situation, and if anything changes in terms of our recommendations, we will of course make sure that our Chicago residents are kept up to date.”
At Beatrix in River North, hostess Jordan Johnson said she showed up for work Monday wearing a mask, then removed it as the day went on.
“We’re kind of just leaving it optional. Some of our co-workers are wearing masks and we don’t really put any limits on the guests anymore. We stopped checking for vaccinations. It’s very sudden and very weird.”
“If it were up to me, I think I would kind of at least keep the mask mandate going on,” she said.
Camila Johnson said she was comfortable not wearing a mask into Beatrix to have lunch with friends Aline Miranda, Barbara Bouquet and Bouquet’s 10-month-old daughter, though all three women wore masks to the restaurant.
“It depends on the situation,” said Johnson, 31. “Like if I go grocery shopping, I don’t think I would feel totally safe talking to someone without a mask on.”
Seoul Taco manager Nada Jackson said most customers Monday came in wearing masks.
“Yeah, honestly, just better safe than sorry when it’s crowded; but I mean, if everybody’s vaccinated then it shouldn’t be a problem,” Jackson said. “But I have a new baby at home, so I’m gonna keep mine on.”
Jose Cervantes, who just turned 51, was celebrating at Athena in Greektown with a couple of friends. He said he works in financial services.
“It’s awesome,” Cervantes said of the mask mandate being lifted. “I’m not saying it’s like, masks never, but it feels like it’s right for now.”
With spring approaching, “Maybe we can open up these windows,” Cervantes added, gesturing to the restaurant’s windows. “It seems like it’s the right time. Whether or not it will hold is another question.”
Artopolis Bakery & Cafe, 306 S. Halsted St., lifted all requirements for customers. Manager Kristin Hill, who has worked at the restaurant for about two-and-a-half years, said lifting the mandates took a weight off her shoulders.
“When I pulled the sign off the door … it was a relief,” she said, because a city mandate “puts a lot of the burden on restaurants to enforce things.”
And that can get uncomfortable.
“To actually stop someone, to have them put on a mask, is really difficult,” she said.
“Nobody wants to confront anybody. Nobody needs that in the service industry. So it is a little bit of a relief, that we don’t have to enforce rules like that. I’m glad that they did it.”