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Going south? Far south suburbs hit with restaurant, bar and other restrictions to combat outbreaks linked to ‘COVID fatigue’

The regional testing positivity rate for Will and Kankakee counties has hit 8% for three consecutive days.

Diners return to Sarkis Cafe in Evanston May 29 after Illinois’ Phase 3 reopening.
Diners return to Sarkis Cafe in Evanston May 29 after Illinois’ Phase 3 reopening.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A wide swath of Chicago’s south suburbs took a step backward from their coronavirus re-openings Monday as Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office announced tighter business restrictions in Will and Kankakee counties due to a rise in positive coronavirus tests.

Beginning Wednesday, bars and restaurants in the region are barred from seating customers indoors and outdoor service will be cut off at 11 p.m., under the new COVID-19 “mitigations” handed down by the Democratic governor’s office.

Party buses are banned, and casinos, which have to close by 11 p.m. as well, will be capped at 25% capacity along with most other venues. The restrictions don’t apply to schools, Pritzker’s office said.

Will and Kankakee counties were saddled with the restrictions because the region’s testing positivity rate topped 8% for three consecutive days, the threshold set by Pritzker’s health team that triggers a state intervention. Experts say the positivity rate indicates how rapidly the virus is spreading through a region.

After several weeks of steady increases, and two days after first crossing the 8% mark, the Will-Kankakee region clocked in at 8.3% Monday.

Their mitigations could be lifted if the positivity rate dips below 6.5% after two weeks — or they could be tightened further if it’s still at 8% or higher by then.

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The regulations are already more stringent than the ones imposed last week in the downstate Metro East region, where indoor bar restaurant service has been limited but not prohibited. That region, near St. Louis, still stands at 9.4% positivity and has until Sept. 2 to lower its rate or else face “further mitigation,” Pritzker’s office said.

At a coronavirus briefing last week, Pritzker said “the regional specifics” of mitigation efforts are “dependent upon the types of activities that are most likely causing or could cause greater community spread of the virus across the state.”

“We won’t hesitate to tighten restrictions to protect our communities,” Pritzker said Aug. 19. “Your health and safety is my paramount concern.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks to residents at a mobile COVID-19 testing station at Edward Coles School in Chicago July 8.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker talks to residents at a mobile COVID-19 testing station at Edward Coles School in Chicago July 8.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

The regional reopening rollback came after the Illinois Department of Public Health announced 1,612 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide.

Illinois’ latest cases were confirmed among 36,155 tests submitted, keeping the state’s testing positivity rate over the last week at 4.2%. Numbers have increased in seven of the state’s 11 regions over the last week. The statewide rate increased from 2.5% in early July to 4.4% last week before a slight dip last weekend.

Chicago’s positivity rate dropped a notch to 5.2% Monday, but suburban Cook County has inched closer to warning-level numbers. It’s at 6.7%, up half a percentage point from a week ago.

After a mid-May pandemic peak, Illinois cases have surged back upward since July. Over the last two weeks, the state has averaged 1,885 new coronavirus cases per day, more than triple the state’s running rate on June 24.

Officials have tied Illinois’ increase to outbreaks caused by lax social distancing and masking guidelines being followed at bars, restaurants, parties and other large gatherings — largely due to “COVID fatigue” among many residents itching to get back to normal.

Health officials on Monday also announced the latest eight deaths attributed to COVID-19, including two Cook County men, one in his 60s and another in his 80s.

Since March, 3.7 million people have been tested for the coronavirus in Illinois, almost 220,000 have tested positive and 7,888 of those have died.

But Illinois hospitals are still well within their capacity. As of Sunday night, 1,529 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide, with 334 in intensive care units and 141 on ventilators.

Read the restrictions imposed on Will and Kankakee counties: