Three times in the past year, state and city officials have jubilantly scheduled news conferences to trumpet the news that confirmed cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations caused by the virus had dropped, prompting them to allow businesses to reopen or expand capacity.
And three times, officials have returned to the microphones approximately one month later to warn that COVID-19 was spreading fast and that if young people didn’t do a better job of wearing masks and keeping 6 feet away from strangers while avoiding crowds, businesses would have to close again to avoid hospitals from being overwhelmed.
Less than two weeks ago, Gov. J.B. Pritzker told reporters: “The light we can see at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter and brighter” as the pace of vaccinations increased and the state’s COVID-19 case positivity stayed flat.
But by then, cases in Chicago had already been rising for five days — a trend that has only accelerated in the meantime.
Even as the state is poised to reach a major milestone by getting at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to 70% of residents ages 65 and older, more Illinoisans are ending up in the hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19, forcing state officials to delay plans to allow businesses to expand, officials said Tuesday.
According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, 1,396 beds were filled statewide Monday with people diagnosed with COVID-19, the most in a month.
Dr. Emily Landon, an associate professor of medicine and the executive medical director for infection prevention and control at UChicago Medicine, said she felt like she was trapped in the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” forced to watch the same thing happen over and over while being powerless to do anything to change the outcome.
Landon, an infectious disease expert who advises state and local officials working to slow the spread of the coronavirus, said she felt a “sense of dread” when officials allowed bars and restaurants to once again serve diners and drinkers indoors in recent weeks.
“I’ve mentioned this to them, I’ve said, please don’t open the bars,” Landon said. “I was worried about the variants, and that the vaccine rollout wouldn’t be fast enough.”
Four COVID-19 variants believed to be more transmissible have been discovered in Illinois, according to state health officials. Cases of the variant first discovered in the United Kingdom are most prevalent in Illinois, and that variant is likely fueling the growth of infections and hospitalizations, Landon said.
While reopening bars that don’t serve food in Chicago and allowing other businesses to increase their number of customers didn’t cause the surges, it has certainly fueled the increase in cases and serves to “perpetuate the problem,” Landon said.
“We need to close the bars right now,” Landon said. “We need to act aggressively.”
A study released March 5 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that allowing dining at restaurants can increase cases and deaths.
Reopening restaurant dining did not result in an increase in cases and deaths in the first 40 days after restrictions were lifted, according to the study. But after that, there were increases of about 1 percentage point in the growth rate of cases and eventually 2 to 3 percentage points in the growth rate of deaths, according to the study.
An average of 473 Chicagoans have been diagnosed each day with the coronavirus during the past week, a 34% increase from the previous week, according to Chicago Department of Public Health data. The city’s test positivity rate has risen to 4.2% from 3.3% during the past seven days, according to city data.
The increase is concentrated among young adults ages 18-39 in North Side neighborhoods including Lincoln Park and Old Town, and Far Northwest Side neighborhoods including Jefferson Park, Dunning, Portage Park and Old Irving Park, according to city data.
In Jefferson Park, the test positivity rate is 8%, Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted Tuesday, calling it “staggering” and “unacceptable.”
The last time the city saw similar increases in confirmed cases of the coronavirus was the beginning of October, weeks before a second surge of the pandemic swept Chicago before peaking in mid-November.
That increase in confirmed cases, hospitalizations and eventually deaths were preceded by Lightfoot’s decision at the beginning of October to allow bars that did not serve food to reopen and to increase the number of customers other businesses were permitted to serve indoors.
Before Oct. 1, bars that do not serve food had been closed since July 20, when an uptick of confirmed COVID-19 cases prompted Lightfoot and city officials to turn down the “dimmer switch” of reopening. They initially reopened at the beginning of June, after Pritzker lifted the stay-at-home order in place from mid-March through the end of May.
They were open for just 22 days before Lightfoot shuttered them, saying she had no choice but to act to “avoid potential catastrophic impacts.”
Five days later, Pritzker rejected pleas from Lightfoot and suspended all indoor dining in Chicago and suburban Cook County — a ban that would last until Jan. 23, when it was clear the second wave of the pandemic had eased.
City officials imposed additional rules on bars and restaurants until March 2, when they were allowed to operate at 50% of their normal capacity, or no more than 50 people — the maximum allowed under the state rules.
Despite the uptick, Lightfoot announced March 23 that restaurants and bars would be allowed to serve more customers outside because COVID-19 is less likely to spread outside, rejecting concerns that it could send a mixed message to Chicagoans.
The city’s COVID-19 case count and hospitalizations have risen steadily since then, but Lightfoot has declined to order new restrictions.
“We can do things in a more targeted way” to stop the spread of COVID-19 than just shutting down businesses, Lightfoot said Monday, adding that city officials are trying to educate young people in neighborhoods where COVID-19 is spreading the fastest.
If those efforts do not succeed, officials will be forced to take “other steps.”
“The last thing I want to do is to have to close back down,” Lightfoot said, saying it would be “disastrous” for businesses and their employees.
“We are not out of the woods,” Lightfoot said.