Breaking Down Illinois’ COVID-19 Mitigations

Running a restaurant throughout the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been all terrible.

While Mary Aregoni did close down a newer Thai restaurant, her three outposts of the Vietnamese restaurant Saigon Sisters were already in place to do delivery, and she’s thankful for regulations that now allow cocktails to-go. She’s also collaborating with other restaurateurs, particularly those owned by women: Next month she expects to do a Mardi Gras pairing and right now, Saigon Sisters is partnering with Klay Oven Kitchen for a curry tasting special.

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“It’s kind of like, we combine forces and engage all the customers to give them something unique and different,” she said. “That I really like about it. The whole creativity and the innovation that come out of it, so it forces us to do things that are out of the ordinary.”

Still, she fears that people will see some of her employees taking a lunch break, and report her restaurant as breaking the rules that forbid indoor dining.

Just Thursday she called the Illinois Restaurant Association because she was unsure whether that’s even something that’s still banned, given that she’d read reports that private gatherings are acceptable.

It’s an example of how hard it can be to keep up with what seems like constantly evolving guidelines.

Things change “all the time” she said.

“It’s a little confusing cause the state of Illinois is saying ‘this’, and the city of Chicago is saying ‘this,’’she said.  “Every day something new.”

Explainer on Illinois’ Mitigations

Metrics. Warnings. Phases. Tiers. What does it all mean?

Background: Illinois has shifted through them during the nearly yearlong coronavirus pandemic that has been plaguing the state.

In May, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a five-phase “Restore Illinois” plan, in which Illinois was divided into four health regions.

In mid-July, Pritzker further broke the state into 11 regions.

The mitigations, or restrictions, each region would have to follow is based on metrics like hospital capacity and the COVID-19 positivity rate.

However, on Nov. 20, ahead of the holiday season, Pritzker put the entire state under one set of rules, known as Tier 3.

The state coronavirus website describes it like this: “Tier 3 builds on the Resurgence Mitigation Plan first released in July to suppress the spread of the virus and ensure our hospitals do not become overrun. This new tier aims to limit gatherings and encourages people to stay home to the greatest extent possible, while permitting some industries to remain open at significantly reduced capacities with proper safety measures in place.”

Even if regions saw hospital beds freed up and COVID-19 cases slow down, the entire state remained in the restrictive Tier 2 until two weeks after New Year’s Day (which was past the incubation period for anyone who may have gathered to celebrate the end of 2020).

Starting Jan. 15, Illinois began allowing regions to become less strict.

Should they meet the hospital and positivity rate thresholds, regions can now move from the strictest Tier 3 to less strict Tier 2, Tier 1 or even into mitigations without any “tiers.”

That’s not to say without any limitations.

Remember those five phases from the Restore Illinois Plan?

IDPH and the Pritzker administration have moved past phases 1-3, but are still relying on aspects of that plan.

Phase 5 is when Illinois can resume day-to-day life, in pre-coronavirus style.

And that doesn’t kick in until enough people have the coronavirus vaccine that achieves herd immunity. Essentially, Illinois remains in phase 4 until that point. But additional mitigations, or restrictions on activities, can be put on top of phase 4, when IDPH’s metrics warrant it – these are the “Tiers” (again, with Tier 3 as the strictest and Tier 1 as the loosest).

When a region moves out of phase 4 / Tier 1, it moves to (and for the time being, will remain in) phase 4.

To further complicate matters, Pritzker on Jan. 18 announced adjustments to the metrics used to determine tiers, such that they don’t rely as much on hospital bed availability due to Illinois having means of sending health care staff to hospitals in need.

The adjustment was a favor to those anxiously awaiting for rules to be relaxed, and meant Chicago (Region 11) could move out of Tier 3 and into Tier 2.

The state has website, PDFs and charts dedicated to what’s permitted and when. But the basics are thus:

Phase 4:  Indoor dining and bars (including those that do not serve food) permitted, at capacity limits. Gatherings of up to 50 people allowed.

—Tier 1: Indoor dining’s permitted at 25% capacity, but only at establishments that serve food. Fitness centers can open, and gatherings are allowed of 25 people or 25% capacity.

—Tier 2: No indoor dining is allowed; outdoor tables are limited to 6 guests. Private gatherings (in-and outdoors) are limited to 10 people. Recreational centers/fitness centers can open, with classes limited to 10. But casinos, museums and theaters can open at limited capacities.

— Tier 3: No indoor dining; outdoor tables are limited to 6 guests. No indoor group fitness classes. Theaters, museums, casinos and gaming centers must close, though cultural institutions can hold outdoor activities limited to groups of 10 people wearing face coverings.

Clearing up confusion

The answer to Aregon’s question – is limited indoor dining okay? – is currently now prohibited, at least in Chicago and Cook County, which are currently under Illinois’ Tier 2 mitigations.

The only exception and possible source of confusion is that up to 10 guests are permitted in “professional, cultural and social group sessions.” But that’s only for private spaces. Aregoni said the restaurant association advised her that closing down the restaurant and limiting it to 10 guests would not count.

There is hope that could change, soon.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady signaled Thursday morning that as Chicago’s positivity rate is hovering around 8%, it may soon be enough to trigger moving to less strict, Tier 1 mitigations.

“Everything’s moving the right way so I anticipate that in the next day or two we might start to be below that mark. You’ve got to be below it for at least three days, so I don’t have a magic ball. It’s all about – as always – we continue to follow the metrics,” she said.

Sports to resume

Even now, Chicago, the suburbs and nearly all of Illinois is under mitigation plans (Tier 2 or less strict) that for the first time in months that means Illinois high school athletes can resume playing sports – as long as they’re low-or moderate risk ones, such as badminton, swimming or cheerleading.

“It’s really just about the well-being of student athletes, from not only the physical but the mental and the emotional standpoint. We know that they’re hurting because they’re away from their teams, they’re away from doing what they love,” Illinois High School Association spokesperson Matt Troha said. “We’re just excited that it looks like we’re going to be able to get quite a few sports back up and going here pretty quickly.”

Sports deemed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health to be high-risk, such as football, lacrosse and basketball, are still not permitted.

The organization is asking IDPH to reconsider, and to move basketball into a medium-risk sport so there can be a season this school year.

The IHSA is scheduled to meet Jan. 27, and could make decisions then about how to rearrange the school sports calendar. The IHSA could move up a spring sport – like boys’ volleyball – in the hopes that it’ll be safe to play basketball at that time, instead. It may shorten the seasons of all sports in hopes of fitting in as many sports as possible. Or, it may determine that with the slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout it’s impractical that Illinois will allow high-risk sports at all this year.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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