Gov. J.B. Pritzker to Lift Indoor Mask Mandate Feb. 28, But Masks to Remain in Schools For Now

Video: Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the indoor mask mandate for the state of Illinois will lift Feb. 28 if current COVID-19 trends keep up. Dr. Jesica Herrick and Dr. Robert Murphy join “Chicago Tonight” to discuss the latest. (Produced by Blair Paddock)

Masks will no longer be required in most indoor public spaces after Feb. 28 as confirmed cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations continue to drop precipitously after the surge driven by the omicron variant, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday.

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However, masks will still be required in most Illinois schools as state officials ask an appellate court to reverse a decision by a Sangamon County judge who ended the mask mandate in some Illinois schools, Pritzker said.

“We are on track to come out of the other side of this latest COVID storm in better shape than even the doctors expected,” Pritzker said.

Masks will continue to be required in congregate settings, including long-term care facilities, where people are forced to have close contact, Pritzker said. Federal rules remain in place that require masks in hospitals and on public transportation.

Illinois Department of Public Health Dr. Ngozi Ezike said she still strongly recommends that people wear masks, especially in crowded indoor spaces.

“COVID is not gone,” Ezike said. “And it will not be gone on Feb. 28, so we’re going to have to continue to find ways to live with the virus.”

Pritzker reimposed the state’s mask mandate on Aug. 30 as Illinois began to experience a surge of cases driven by the delta variant of COVID-19 and has kept it in place ever since. Masks were not required for people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 between June 11 and Aug. 30, after being in place since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Schools may be able to make masks optional for students “within weeks” of the end of the indoor mask mandate, especially if cases continue to decline precipitously and more children get vaccinated.

“Schools need a little more time,” Pritzker said.

Businesses can still require patrons wear masks, and cities and counties can impose tougher restrictions to keep their residents safe, Pritzker said.

Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director for infection prevention and control at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said everyone must learn to live with COVID-19, while taking precautions to protect those who are immunocompromised and more likely to become seriously ill.

Lifting the mask mandate on Feb. 28 is “aggressive and optimistic, but it’s also reasonable,” Landon said.

“This isn't an end to the pandemic,” Landon said. “And it’s not going back to normal.”

Chicago officials said in a statement they were hopeful that the city could end its mask mandate in concert with the state. Mayor Lori Lightfoot reimposed the city’s mandate on Aug. 20. Officials from the Cook County Department of Health said they were also optimistic the mask mandate in suburban Cook County could also be lifted along with the state order. 

Since Jan. 3, city officials have required everyone dining, drinking or exercising indoors to show proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Lightfoot has said that both requirements would be lifted in the coming weeks if cases and hospitalizations continue to drop.

Chicago is averaging 20.7 new cases per day per 100,000 residents, according to data from the Chicago Department of Public Health.

An average of 561 Chicagoans have been diagnosed each day with the coronavirus during the past week, a 47% drop as compared with the previous week, according to Chicago Department of Public Health data.

The city’s test positivity rate is 2.9%, down from 4.4% the previous week, while the number of tests dropped 17%, according to city data.  

Daily hospitalizations dropped 46% in the past seven days, and 75.6% of all Chicagoans have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to city data.

The rate of COVID-19 transmission now poses a “high risk” in Chicago, according to city data, after posing a “very high risk” from Nov. 29 to Feb. 8.

City officials assess that risk with four metrics: the number of confirmed cases, the number of positive tests as compared will all tests taken, the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and the number of intensive care unit beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.

At least three of those four metrics will have to peg the risk of COVID-19 transmission at a “lower” rate for two weeks before the city lifts its mask and vaccine mandates, Chicago officials said. Two weeks is a full incubation period for COVID-19, according to federal health officials.

Chicago’s test positivity is already at a “lower risk,” while the city’s hospital and intensive care capacity indicates Chicagoans face a “substantial risk,” according to city data. The number of confirmed cases indicates that there is a “high risk” of COVID-19 transmission in Chicago, according to city data.

Up until now, Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, has said that city officials have measured the city’s overall risk in line with the most elevated metric. In fact, the city’s website warns residents that there is currently a “high risk” of COVID-19 transmission, even though just one of the four metrics meets that standard.

Arwady has not taken questions from the news media or residents this week, and it was not clear why the city is now requiring just three risk metrics to be at the “lower risk” standard before lifting the mask mandate and the vaccine mandate.

Illinois Restaurant Association CEO Sam Toia celebrated Pritzker’s announcement.

“This is a sure sign of hope for many restaurants throughout our state still struggling to rebuild their businesses,” Toia said.

Illinois hospitalizations for COVID-19 peaked at more than 7,300 in mid-January and have declined to approximately 2,500 this week, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Pritzker’s action is not in line with current guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends mask mandates in places where the rate of transmission of COVID-19 is “high” or “substantial” because masks reduce that rate of transmission. All of Illinois is experiencing high transmission, according to state data.

Pritzker said he was “optimistic” that the state would meet those guidelines by Feb. 28.

However, if hospitalizations begin to rise — taxing the state's health care system again — Pritzker said he would reverse course.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday that state’s mask and vaccine mandates would immediately end. Masks will still be required in New York schools.

Illinois joined California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Nevada, and Oregon, where Democratic governors ended mask mandates under intense political pressure.

Pritzker is running for a second term in office and has faced concerted criticism from some that his efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 have been heavy handed and ineffective.

In response to questions from reporters, Pritzker dismissed those who have suggested that he was motivated by politics rather than data from epidemiologists.

“It's hard to take them seriously at this point,” Pritzker said, noting that many of the same people who oppose mask mandates encourage people not to get vaccinated.

Approximately 89% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in Illinois are unvaccinated, Ezike said.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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