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Masks? Again? New CDC guidelines urge covered faces in some suburbs, but Chicago still considered ‘lower risk’

New masking guidelines laid out Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added the latest web of regulations for Illinois residents to follow, varying county by county. And masks are also now recommended for anyone inside schools. 

A Southwest Side preschool teacher shows a student how to properly wear a mask earlier this year. New CDC guidelines recommend masks for anyone inside a school regardless of vaccination status.
A Southwest Side preschool teacher shows a student how to properly wear a mask earlier this year. New CDC guidelines recommend masks for anyone inside a school regardless of vaccination status.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

People who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 can still go bare-faced in most indoor Chicago settings — for now.

But have that mask ready if you’re heading inside a store in Mokena, a restaurant in Joliet or any other indoor public spot in suburban Will County.

The same goes for just about all of southern Illinois and other parts of the state that are considered to be at a “substantial” or “high” risk for COVID-19 transmission — labels that federal public health officials have now applied to more than half the state’s 102 counties.

And anyone inside a school anywhere in the state should mask up as well.

New masking guidelines laid out Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added the latest web of regulations for Illinois residents to follow — ones that vary county by county — as the more infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus tears through unvaccinated communities.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Illinois Department of Public Health immediately announced it would adopt the new CDC guidelines, which call for indoor masking regardless of vaccination status in those high- and substantial-risk counties. Masks are also now recommended inside schools no matter what the local risk level.

“Cases and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 both continue to increase, overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated, but the risk is greater for everyone if we do not stop the ongoing spread of the virus and the Delta variant,” state Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement.

“We know masking can help prevent transmission of COVID-19 and its variants. Until more people are vaccinated, we join CDC in recommending everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in areas of substantial and high transmissions, and in K-12 schools.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker looks on as Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters in December.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker looks on as Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters in December.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Under the latest CDC guidelines — which walk back the agency’s controversial protocol in May that said vaccinated people could go maskless in most situations — counties that are adding new daily cases at a rate of between 50 and 99 per 100,000 residents are considered to be at the substantial risk level. That applies to 30 Illinois counties, including Will.

Counties averaging 100 or more cases per 100,000 residents are at a high risk, according to the CDC, including 37 Illinois counties. Many of those border Missouri, which is among several south and southwestern states where the virus is raging once again. The Delta variant is thought to be driving more than 80% of new cases in the Midwest.

Counties marked red or orange are considered to have a “high” or “substantial” risk for COVID-19, and both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are urged to wear masks in indoor settings there.
Counties marked red or orange are considered to have a “high” or “substantial” risk for COVID-19, and both vaccinated and unvaccinated people are urged to wear masks in indoor settings there.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The rest of Illinois, including Chicago, is at a moderate risk level for now, meaning most mask recommendations haven’t changed. New recommendations could eventually be implemented, though, especially if cases keep piling up as they have over the past month.

At a Tuesday news conference held shortly before the new CDC guidelines were laid out, city Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said her agency would review them, but the federal agency’s initial risk rating backed up her assertion that “we’re not at a point where we’re needing to recommend” universal indoor masking again.

An average of 176 Chicagoans have tested positive each day over the past week, a rate that has jumped 69% since last week. On Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot suggested she’d start considering more restrictions or a mask mandate like those that have been reinstated in some other major cities if the city starts topping 200 cases per day.

Arwady said that’ll likely happen within a few days, but a citywide mask mandate isn’t likely to be back on the table until Chicago hits 400 cases per day — which would still fall well below the CDC’s threshold for “substantial” risk. Under the new CDC guidelines, Chicagoans wouldn’t need to start masking up until the daily caseload was exceeding 1,300.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks during a news conference in June.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks during a news conference in June.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

“When we get over 200, we start certainly watching more closely — we may make some recommendations around people who are older or have underlying conditions,” Arwady said.

“But my feeling is, we want to make sure if we are moving to particularly a mandate around masking again, even for people who are unvaccinated, I want to do that based on our local data and our local risk, and I want to do it at a time where really the risk is significantly higher. At this point, luckily it remains in that lower risk.”

Arwady added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we get there. We may, but if you’re worried about it, talk to anybody you know about getting vaccinated, because it really is where more folks are vaccinated, the risk drops for everybody, and we’ve seen that so, so clearly regionally.”