Maskless March: Pritzker to lift Illinois’ indoor mask mandate for most public areas Feb. 28 — but not yet for schools

Masks won’t be required in grocery stores, restaurants and other gathering points, but they’ll still be required in hospitals, on mass transit and some other settings, including schools. The Chicago and Cook County public health departments indicated the city and suburbs would follow the state’s lead.

SHARE Maskless March: Pritzker to lift Illinois’ indoor mask mandate for most public areas Feb. 28 — but not yet for schools
Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives a COVID-19 update to reporters in the Blue Room at the Thompson Center in February,

Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives a COVID-19 update to reporters in the Blue Room at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday announced he’ll lift his indoor mask mandate for most public settings by Feb. 28, but he’ll still push to keep face coverings on in schools for at least a few weeks beyond that.

The Democratic governor’s latest pandemic directive means Illinoisans — vaccinated or not, and barring a sudden resurgence by the end of the month — can go barefaced in grocery stores, restaurants, theaters and most other places. They’ll still have to mask up in hospitals, nursing homes and other areas with vulnerable residents, as well as other places where federal masking rules remain in effect, including on mass transit.

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And while the fate of face coverings in schools is still unclear pending the result of a legal challenge in Sangamon County, Pritzker said he’ll stick to his plan to keep students’ and teachers’ masks on at least until early spring.

“The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population,” Pritkzer said at a news conference at the Thompson Center. “Schools need a little more time for community infection rates to drop for our youngest learners to become vaccine eligible, and for more parents to get their kids vaccinated.”

But that mandate was halted by a downstate judge last week who ruled the governor was overreaching his executive power by requiring masks in schools. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has asked an appellate court to pause the judge’s restraining order.

While Pritzker said he expects to lift his school mask mandate “in the coming weeks” after Feb. 28, his office will continue fighting the judge’s ruling because “it takes away a tool” in the ongoing pandemic fight, especially if a new variant arises.

“We want to be able to keep everybody safe in the future, and that case decided in one circuit court, downstate in Sangamon County, by one judge shouldn’t keep us from trying to keep the entire state safe,” he said.

In the meantime, the general public will be able to go back to a mostly maskless lifestyle at the end of the month for the first time since last summer.

“We are now into Year 3 with COVID, and it’s been a roller coaster ride that no one asked to get on. But through all of your efforts, we have reached a point where we can take another step towards getting back to life before the pandemic,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, gives a COVID-19 update at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, gives a COVID-19 update at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Local officials can still mandate masks if they want to. Officials from the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Cook County Department of Public Health indicated the city and suburbs will follow the state’s lead on Feb. 28 unless the metrics take a sharp turn for the worse.

Businesses can maintain their own masking policies, too. “We will continue to recommend masks as we move forward in a world where we will coexist with COVID,” Ezike said.

The about-face on masks was slammed by Pritzker’s challengers in the Republican primary race for governor, who have long derided his pandemic mitigation efforts as being too heavy-handed.

“A few short days ago, this Governor refused to end mandates saying we needed to ‘follow the science’ but today says everyone can remove their masks except the lowest risk population,” GOP gubernatorial primary candidate and Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said in a statement.

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, left, in 2019; Suburban businessman Gary Rabine, center, last year; Republican venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan, right, in October.

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, left, in 2019; Suburban businessman Gary Rabine, center, in March; Republican venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan, right, in October.

File photos by Patrick Kunzer/Daily Herald; Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times and Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine said Pritzker’s masking move “will compound the chaos by beginning to lift the mandate for the general public but keep it in place for schools.”

Downstate venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan accused the Democratic incumbent of practicing “political science” over “real science,” while anti-masking state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, declared it’s time to “restore the ‘P’ to PTA” by allowing parents to decide whether their kids should cover their faces.

State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia), center, speaks at a news conference in Springfield on Wednesday as state Rep. Blaine Wilhour (R-Beecher City), left, and state Rep. Adam Niemerg (R-Dieterich), right, listen.

State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia), center, speaks at a news conference in Springfield on Wednesday as state Rep. Blaine Wilhour (R-Beecher City), left, and state Rep. Adam Niemerg (R-Dieterich), right, listen.

Blue Room Stream

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, who sent the Democratic governor a letter Tuesday urging him to lay out his timeline to lift the mandate, called the decision to keep masks on in schools “unconscionable and a clear sign the Governor should not be trusted to get us out of this pandemic.”

Pritzker denied the lifting of the mask rule was motivated to score points with voters ahead of a tough re-election campaign, dismissing his GOP critics as “the same people that wanted us to take masks off, or encourage people not to get vaccinated, back when we had rising infections and rising hospitalizations.

“So it’s hard to take them seriously,” he said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives a COVID-19 update to reporters in the Blue Room at the Thompson Center last week.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives a COVID-19 update to reporters in the Blue Room at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Instead, Pritzker said the impetus was Illinois’ dramatic decline in COVID hospitalizations, which were down to 2,496 as of Tuesday night — barely a third of last month’s peak, and the first time they’ve dipped below 2,500 since the end of November. The state has averaged 6,141 new cases per day over the past week, a rate that has dropped nearly 78% in less than a month.

About 79 Illinoisans have died of the virus each day over the last week, but that rate is slowing too.

Pritzker also pointed to the state’s vaccination rate, which is tops in the Midwest. About 71% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, and almost half of those have been boosted.

University of Chicago epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon — an early advocate for masking requirements before the Delta and Omicron waves — called Pritzker’s decision “aggressive and optimistic, but it’s also reasonable.”

“This does not mean that no one needs to wear a mask anymore. It’s an acknowledgment that cases have fallen to an acceptable or manageable level,” Landon said.

Pritzker’s move follows several other Democratic-led states that have announced plans this week to let mandates expire, including California, New Jersey and New York.

Dr. Emily Landon

Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at the University of Chicago talks to reporters in the Blue Room on Wednesday.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

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, which still recommends masks in public indoor settings in areas where COVID-19 case counts are considered “high” or “substantial” — labels that still apply to more than 99% of counties nationwide, and all of Illinois.

The governor said his office will “listen to what the CDC is saying,” but noted that infectious control experts he interacts with “really do feel that the trajectory here is one that we’re going to be able to hold onto.”

Illinois Restaurant Association president Sam Toia hailed the lift of the mandate.

“Restaurants continue to do their part to keep their diners and team members safe, and are eager to take this next step toward normalcy and recovery,” Toia said in a statement. “This is a sure sign of hope for many restaurants throughout our state still struggling to rebuild their businesses.”

Mitchell Armentrout reported from Chicago, Taylor Avery from Springfield.

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