Masker aid? Pritzker expected to reveal plan Wednesday to allow Illinoisans to go barefaced indoors again

While sources say the governor will wind down the mask mandate for the public at large, state officials are expected to continue waging the legal battle to keep masks on in schools, which Pritzker says present a different challenge in the fight to curb the spread of COVID-19.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker takes off his mask before speaking to the media at an event in the Pullman neighborhood in October of 2020.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker takes off his mask before speaking to the media at an event in the Pullman neighborhood in October of 2020.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker will lay out a plan on Wednesday to phase out his mask mandate for Illinois residents in most indoor settings, sources said.

Pritzker teased the rollback earlier Tuesday, telling residents to “stay tuned” for an update on the masking policy that has been back in effect for about six months — and which has faced pushback over the past week as Illinois’ COVID-19 metrics sink to the lowest levels seen since the onset of the Omicron variant.

While Pritzker is expected to wind down the mandate for the public at large, state officials plan to continue waging a legal battle to keep masks on in schools, which present a different ongoing challenge in the pandemic, according to the Democratic governor.

“We’re very close,” Pritzker said at an unrelated Springfield news conference Tuesday afternoon. “The challenge in schools … is because it’s such a central focus of communities, and literally sometimes thousands of people are interacting in a school in a single day in one location.”

“We’ve got to be very careful about how we remove those mask mandates, and also making sure that the schools are doing what’s responsible — [that] they have the testing available going forward, that they know when they should be thinking about — at the local level — when they should be putting masks back on when there are outbreaks and so on,” Pritzker said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker adjusts his mask at an August 2021 news conference.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker adjusts his mask at an August 2021 news conference.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

“So that’s all, I think, in the careful planning process, and we’ll be making announcements.”

The details of the plan to phase out the mask mandate weren’t known. Pritzker didn’t offer any specific guidelines Tuesday.

But Pritzker’s office is fighting a downstate judge’s temporary restraining order issued last week that ruled the governor overstepped his executive power with school mask mandates.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has asked an appellate court to pause that order, arguing that the nixing of school mask mandates threatens “severe and immediate public health risks and disruption to in-person learning.”

Pritzker’s Republican nemeses have urged him to cut through the mixed messaging on masks — and to follow the growing number of Democratic states that are going bare-faced while some Illinoisans “give up hope that they can ever have a normal life.”

“Governor, it has been a long two years, and the people of this state deserve to know what you are doing,” Illinois House Republican Durkin wrote to Pritzker in a letter Tuesday. “Will you follow the lead of your democratic colleagues across the nation, or will you continue to force your will on the people of Illinois, depriving them of any optimism for their future and the future of this state?”

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin speaks on the House floor.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, speaks on the House floor last May.

Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

Democratic governors in California, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon have all announced plans this week to ease up their masking restrictions and eventually lift them entirely.

They join the ranks of many Republican-led states that for months have been bucking mask guidelines set last summer by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That federal agency still recommends masks in public indoor settings in areas where COVID case counts are considered “high” or “substantial” — labels that still apply to more than 99% of counties nationwide, and all of Illinois.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks to reporters on Monday, the day he announced plans to lift the statewide COVID-19 mask requirement in schools a month from now because of the rapid easing of the Omicron surge.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks to reporters on Monday, the day he announced plans to lift the statewide COVID-19 mask requirement in schools a month from now because of the rapid easing of the Omicron surge.

Seth Wenig/AP file

But with experts placing more emphasis on COVID hospitalizations than on case numbers following the Omicron surge, officials feel “much more comfortable” about easing restrictions, Pritzker said.

“I would remind people that it’s downstate and southern Illinois and central Illinois where we’ve had the highest numbers of people, percentage wise, filling ICU beds and hospital beds,” the governor said Tuesday afternoon. “And now that those numbers are coming down... I think everybody, the doctors in particular, are feeling much more comfortable about alleviating the mitigations.”

Illinois’ current seven-day average daily case rate of 6,815 has shrunk to less than a fifth of what it was a month ago. Hospitals across the state were treating 2,634 COVID patients Monday night, the fewest they’ve seen since Dec. 2 — but intensive care units are still stretched thin in southern Illinois, where just three ICU beds were available for the entire region.

A patient is wheeled out of the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in December of 2020.

A patient is wheeled out of the Intensive Care Unit at Roseland Community Hospital on the Far South Side in December of 2020.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The virus is still claiming 76 lives per day statewide, but that rate has fallen by 42% since mid-January.

“It’s a tremendous desire of mine to do what we did last summer, which is take masks off, and see if we can’t get through this now that we have treatments, widespread vaccinations, testing available, and we all know to wear a mask when things get more difficult — there may be another variant,” he said.

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