Illinois not ready to end coronavirus restrictions — but Pritzker ready to discuss how we can

Illinoisans could get a better idea later this week just how soon they can expect to gather in larger crowds and resume visiting their regular restaurants and stores, but they will apparently need to continue to let their eyes do the smiling. “We’re not getting rid of masks,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike,

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during a daily COVID-19 update at the James R. Thompson Center in December.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during a daily COVID-19 update at the James R. Thompson Center in December.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

A year after the state logged its first death from the coronavirus, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his public health team are poised to release a retooled plan to reopen Illinois and end the majority of the COVID-19 restrictions as soon as adequate numbers of residents are fully vaccinated.

But while Illinoisans could get a better idea later this week just how soon they can expect to gather in larger crowds and resume visiting their regular restaurants and stores, they will apparently need to continue to let their eyes do the smiling.

“We’re not getting rid of masks,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the head of the Illinois Department of Public Health. “We think masks have to continue to be a mainstay.”

Ezike’s remarks came during an Illinois Senate Health Committee hearing. She told senators the governor may unveil plans for a phased-in reopening later this week, news the governor’s spokeswoman confirmed.

“Our administration is talking to industry and public health experts to discuss the next steps of this pandemic response,” said Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokeswoman for Pritzker.

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Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

During the hearing, Ezike said moving from the current Phase 4 — which the state has been in since last summer — to Phase 5 of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan likely won’t be “an on-off switch, but may be a dial,” meaning that the state may see at least one more intermediary phase of lessening coronavirus mitigations before a full reopening.

“It really does involve how much of our most vulnerable population has been vaccinated, and — of course — that starts with our seniors,” Ezike said. “So, once we see like a great majority of our seniors vaccinated that should get us to another level, and then we can start having at least larger size gatherings, like everything open up with some kind of capacities.”

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks during an Illinois Senate Health Committee hearing on Monday.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, speaks during an Illinois Senate Health Committee hearing on Monday.

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And Pritzker made it clear the state is running the race to get as many people vaccinated as possible with a wary eye over the shoulder.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on the eve of the first death due to COVID-19, Pritzker reflected on the virus’ impact on the state and the race against new variants of the virus.

“I think that there are variants out there that clearly are sweeping across the United States,” Pritzker said. “We are racing to get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker at a coronavirus briefing in November.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker at a coronavirus briefing in November.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The governor said he’s reflected on “all of the challenges that people have come up against,” including dealing with the virus, the lives and jobs lost as well as the families who are grieving lost loved ones, over the last year.

In some ways, this is the “why” for why someone would go into public service, Pritzker said.

“You don’t think about a pandemic, but you do think to yourself ‘how do I lift up families all across the state, how do I help them do better, how do I make their lives better,’” Pritzker said. “In the midst of all that, to have a pandemic, it just means you have to reorient the way you think about doing public service which is ‘I need to save the most lives possible, I need to make sure that we’re keeping people as financially viable as we possibly can, and that we’re lifting up people that have been hurt by coronavirus.’”

A year ago, the governor said he was thinking about how to “save as many lives as possible,” something he said he hasn’t stopped thinking about since.

With three effective vaccines, and 22% of the state’s population receiving at least one dose, Pritzker said he’s “happy” about all of that, but knows there’s “an enormous toll” taken by this virus.

Asked what it’s like to have some in the state mad at him for his response to the virus, Pritzker pointed to that goal and added “I can’t think about the politics that Donald Trump brought upon us.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during a news conference about the opening of the new COVID-19 mass vaccination site on the parking lot of the United Center in the Near West Side neighborhood last week.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker listens during a news conference about the opening of the new COVID-19 mass vaccination site on the parking lot of the United Center in the Near West Side neighborhood last week.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

“Remember, a hurricane hit us effectively with this pandemic and what Donald Trump ignited was a heavy headwind in addition to the hurricane that was hitting us,” Pritzker said. “I had to just decide that this wasn’t about politics and that, even if he was trying to convince people not to wear masks ... that I needed to do everything that I could to keep people safe. And that’s what I’ve done.”

The governor gave an emphatic “no” when asked if he was worried that his efforts during the pandemic may tank his potential bid for a second term, adding “I’m focused on doing what’s right for the people of the state of Illinois and not on the politics.”

Demonstrators gather outside of the Thompson Center in May to protest restrictions instituted by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in an attempt to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

Demonstrators gather outside of the Thompson Center in May to protest restrictions instituted by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in an attempt to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

Scott Olson/Getty Images file

Pritzker is eligible for the vaccine in Phase 1B plus, but he said he’s waiting to get his dose to avoid jumping the line.

Half the funds from the recently passed COVID-19 relief bill should be available by April and the state has to make sure they’re used “prudently,” Pritzker said.

“What’s important about it is we we’ve got to make sure that those dollars are used prudently, that we pay down debt that we incurred as a result of the coronavirus, that we pay down bills that were incurred during this pandemic and that we ignite job creation and economic growth with those dollars,” Pritzker said. “I think that’s the best and wisest use for us in this pandemic, and that’s what I’m here to encourage the Legislature to do.”

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