Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday outlined her plan to slowly reopen Chicago, stressing that testing availability and the rate of the coronavirus spread will dictate whether the city progresses toward a new normal or falls back into the strict social distancing measures that have crippled its economy.
But during a Friday afternoon press conference, Lightfoot would not give a hard timeline for when certain sectors of life and business in the city would begin to reemerge from their months-long, COVID-19 hiatus. She declined to speculate when the Lakefront and The 606 recreation trail will reopen, when Chicago’s pro sports teams can resume playing before fans, or when restaurants devastated by Illinois’ stay-at-home orders can again open their dining rooms.
“We are not at the point where we can begin reopening our city,” Lightfoot said as she outlined her five-step plan, called “Protecting Chicago.” Lightfoot says the city is currently in Phase Two of its reopening process, a period she described as requiring Chicagoans largely to stay at home, with some essential businesses open.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is absolutely there, but it’s still just a glimmer, and we still have a long way to go before we can safely return to the way things were before.”
Lightfoot’s plan follows Gov. JB Pritzker’s state-wide reopening blueprint released earlier this week. Each phase of the city’s plan will be driven by science and public health data, the mayor’s office said.
Getting Chicago to Phase 3
Some nonessential businesses, nonprofits and city services wouldn’t open until Phase 3, which restricts social gatherings to less than 10 people. Before opening, employers and businesses would have to detail how they plan to protect workers, either with masks and personal protective equipment or screenings and strict social distancing. She said Chicago could see a future where buildings are equipped with sensors to take people’s temperatures.
But to reach that phase, city officials say they must reach certain public health benchmarks. And it’s unclear when that will happen.
According to the plan, those metrics include: a decline in the average rate of COVID-19 cases over a 14-day period; declines in the rates of hospitalization and deaths; fewer than 1,800 patients hospitalized; fewer than 600 in intensive care units; and fewer than 450 on ventilators.
The city also wants to be able to conduct 4,500 COVID-19 tests each day, compared to the current 3,000, said Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s public health commissioner. That would mean a 50% increase in current testing capacity, which she expected to happen “over the next few weeks.”
And to advance to the next phase, less than 15% of COVID-19 tests administered can come back positive. The threshold is higher — less than 30% — in spaces where people live closely together, such as nursing homes, jails and homeless shelters. Arwady said the city has a positive case rate of about 26% right now.
She said monitoring severe cases also is critical: There are some 480 patients currently in ICU beds, and the city’s capacity maxes out at 600.
These benchmarks will be assessed on a rolling 14-day average, which is roughly the period of incubation for COVID-19.
“While our goal is to get as many people back to work as quickly and safely as possible, we will keep data and science as the North Stars of this work, as we have throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Arwady said.
View the slideshow explaining Lightfoot’s plan.
Longer-term uncertainty for schools, businesses
Chicago still seems to be far off from the final stage of the plan — Phase 5 — when all businesses can reopen, some larger-scale events can resume and “most activities resume with health safety in place,” according to an outline from the mayor’s office. Lightfoot predicted nonessential workers who’ve been working from home could very likely continue to do so through the end of summer or early fall, based on what she said she’s heard from some business leaders.
But it’s unclear what restrictions or specific guidelines the city will impose as the city slowly crawls back to economic and social life. Lightfoot said she’s compiled a group to work with business leaders, community groups and labor unions to draft plans for how individual industries and organizations can operate safely in a post-pandemic world.
Lightfoot also declared publicly that her goal is to reopen the public schools for in-person classes this fall. However, she stressed that the ultimate decision will be determined by science and by public health.
“Of course, I have the aspiration that our young people will be back in class so they can learn and thrive and be nurtured,” she said. Remote learning is in place, Lightfoot said, but acknowledged it can’t replace in-person school.
Lightfoot said school district officials will work with the school community, including the Chicago Teachers Union, to determine if and how schools could be opened and social distance maintained. But the union said the city and school district should have consulted them before making any public statements about reopening. The union also said two plans should be established, one for in-person learning and the other for continued remote learning.
Speaking at his daily COVID-19 press conference, Gov. JB Pritzker praised the plan as a model for other municipalities to follow.
“It will fit, I think, nicely into the framework that we’ve put forward,” the governor said. “And I think other local governments should be considering doing the same thing, thinking about how they can fit their timetables for opening businesses that are particular to their areas of the state within the timetables we’d laid out.”
Pritzker himself has faced criticism from some Republicans and business groups for his own reopening plan, though the governor has defended it, saying it prioritizes public health.
Have questions or comments about the plan? The mayor’s office is collecting feedback here.