Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday announced he’ll lift his indoor mask mandate for most public settings by Feb. 28, but he’ll still push to keep face coverings on in schools for a few weeks beyond that.
The Democratic governor’s latest pandemic directive means Illinoisans — vaccinated or not — can go bare-faced in grocery stores, restaurants, theaters and other gathering points, but they’ll still have to mask up in hospitals, nursing homes and other places with vulnerable residents, as well as on mass transit.
And while the fate of face coverings in schools is still unclear pending the result of a legal challenge in Sangamon County, Pritzker said he’ll stick to his plan to keep students’ and teachers’ masks on at least until early spring.
“We still have the sensitive locations of K-12 schools, where we have lots of people who are, you know, joined together in smaller spaces, thousands of people interacting in one location at a time, and so that’s something that will come weeks hence,” Pritzker said at an unrelated Champaign news conference.
That mandate was halted by a downstate judge last week who ruled the governor was overreaching his executive power by requiring masks in schools. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has asked an appellate court to pause the judge’s restraining order.
In the meantime, the general public will be able to go back to a mostly maskless lifestyle at the end of the month for the first time since last summer.
“I think all of us are getting tired of wearing masks, that’s for sure,” Pritzker said. “But I have to say, I mean, an enormous compliment to the people of Illinois. We have done such a good job — you have done such a good job — of keeping each other safe.”
But the governor’s Republican challengers slammed Pritzker’s about-face on masks.
“A few short days ago, this Governor refused to end mandates saying we needed to ‘follow the science’ but today says everyone can remove their masks except the lowest risk population,” GOP gubernatorial primary candidate and Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said in a statement.
Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine, another Republican candidate for governor, said Pritzker’s masking move “will compound the chaos by beginning to lift the mandate for the general public but keep it in place for schools.”
Pritzker credited the mask mandate for Illinois’ relative success in tamping down the Omicron variant surge compared to neighboring Midwest states that ditched their mask requirements months ago.
Pritzker said the impetus for rolling back the masking edict was Illinois’ dramatic decline in COVID hospitalizations, which were down to 2,496 as of Tuesday night — barely a third of last month’s peak, and the first time they’ve dipped below 2,500 since the end of November. The state has averaged 6,141 new cases per day over the past week, a rate that has dropped nearly 78% in less than a month.
About 79 Illinoisans have died of the virus each day over the last week, but that rate is slowing too.
“Very importantly, things are getting better across the state of Illinois, and that’s really a credit to leaders across the state, but really to the people of Illinois,” Pritzker said.
Local officials can still mandate masks if they want to. It wasn’t immediately clear if Chicago and suburban Cook County would follow the state’s lead on lifting masks. A spokesman for the Cook County Department of Public Health didn’t have any immediate comment.
City officials didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady hinted last week the mask order could be lifted “quite soon.” Cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all plummeted more than 40% in Chicago since last week.
Pritzker’s move to drop masks follows several other Democratic-led states that have announced plans this week to let mandates expire, including California, New Jersey and New York.
They join the ranks of many Republican-led states that for months have been bucking mask guidelines set last summer by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That agency still recommends masks in public indoor settings in areas where COVID-19 case counts are considered “high” or “substantial” — labels that still apply to more than 99% of counties nationwide, and all of Illinois.
But with experts placing more emphasis on COVID-19 hospitalizations than on case numbers after the Omicron surge, officials feel “much more comfortable” about easing restrictions, Pritzker said.
Illinois Restaurant Association president Sam Toia hailed the lift of the mandate.
“Restaurants continue to do their part to keep their diners and team members safe, and are eager to take this next step toward normalcy and recovery,” Toia said in a statement. “This is a sure sign of hope for many restaurants throughout our state still struggling to rebuild their businesses.”