Chicago could lift its indoor mask mandate along with the rest of Illinois on Feb. 28 — give or take “a few days” — but don’t mark your calendar to go bare-faced in bars and restaurants just yet, the city’s top doctor warned Tuesday.
Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said that while “things are generally looking very good,” the mandates on face coverings and proof of vaccination for many venues will remain in place until the city is hitting at least three specific COVID-19 benchmarks.
“Given the progress we’ve been making, I am feeling very optimistic,” Arwady said at a City Hall news conference. “I think next week we will probably, hopefully, be able to share some good news and make a final determination. But please know we’re watching the data.”
For most of the pandemic, the city has adjusted its coronavirus mitigation measures according to four main categories: cases, positivity rate, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions.
To remove the mask and proof-of-vaccination mandates, at least three of those categories would have to be at levels considered “lower” or “low,” by city standards. The city’s seven-day average positivity rate of 2% is already in the “lower” transmission category.
“I’m pretty confident we’re gonna see a second one in there in a day or two, and probably a third one a few days after that,” Arwady said.
But Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office had also required the city to hold those lower benchmarks for at least two weeks before lifting any mandates. Arwady said she would “prefer” to stick to that timeline but suggested the city would soften that stance to avoid confusion as the statewide mandate expires.
“If we are not able to move on the 28th, I think it would probably be not very long after that, but if it’s a difference of just a few days, I don’t think it’s worth the potential confusion to the public,” Arwady said. “But if we’re talking about a week difference, for example, we might extend it. We’ve got to hit the data points.”
Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced he’d lift his statewide mask mandate — except in schools and other settings considered vulnerable — at the end of the month, citing the dramatic drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations following the Omicron variant surge.
Barring another surge, city officials initially indicated Chicago would lift its mandate at the same time, but Lightfoot threw cold water on that notion Monday, saying she wouldn’t “put an artificial date on when this is gonna happen.”
“We’re using the same set of data and metrics that we’ve used throughout the pandemic. We’re making progress. But we’re not there yet,” Lightfoot said.
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the city are each down more than 30% since last week. Despite the improvement, Arwady said the city’s current case rate of 431 per day means that if 50 people are gathered in one place, there’s a 45% chance someone there has COVID. With 500 people in a room, it’s essentially guaranteed someone is infected.
“That’s why we do what we do, and why we use the data,” she said.
Statewide, COVID transmission is as low as it’s been since before Thanksgiving. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 2,893 new cases Tuesday, lowering the average statewide case positivity rate to 2.9% — the first time it’s fallen below 3% since Nov. 16.
While hospitals are still stretched thin in southern Illinois, just over 1,800 people were admitted with the virus statewide, another three-month low.
The virus has claimed an average of 72 Illinois lives per day over the last week, including 53 reported Tuesday, but that rate is falling too.
Almost 20% of eligible residents still haven’t been vaccinated.
For help finding a shot, or to set up a free in-home vaccination appointment, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.