Chicago Is On Track To Ease More Coronavirus Restrictions On July 1, Says Top Health Official

Brunch diners at Meli cafe
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Brunch diners at Meli cafe
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Chicago Is On Track To Ease More Coronavirus Restrictions On July 1, Says Top Health Official

If COVID-19 cases continue to decline in Chicago, the city could re-open more of its economy on July 1, city officials announced Friday.

That means antsy Chicagoans could return to dining inside restaurants, going to the gym and heading to zoos and museums, though all still with limited capacity.

Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, delivered the hopeful news as she unveiled a new color-coded system to track COVID-19, and outlined what could move the city into its next reopening phase – or set it back.

Arwady gave WBEZ a glimpse last week. Her bottom line: COVID-19 cases can’t overwhelm hospitals, or the city could put restrictions back in place.

“If people can hang in there and keep doing the things that we know work, the things that have given us the progress that we saw in the month of May, we will be OK to continue that cautious reopening carefully,” Arwady told reporters. “But if people think COVID is over, we will have trouble here.”

If the spread of COVID-19 improves dramatically – if Chicago had fewer than 100 newly diagnosed cases a day compared to more than 200 a day now – city leaders could re-open more of the economy even before July 1, Arwady said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on June 3 moved Chicago into Phase 3 of her five-phase plan to begin reopening portions of the city’s economy after more than two months of stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. In the current phase, Chicagoans can dine at restaurants outside, get a haircut and once again enjoy parks west of the coveted lakefront.

In a statement Friday unveiling the new tracking system, Lighfoot urged Chicagoans not to get complacent about COVID-19, which has killed more than 6,000 people in Illinois. About 40% of deaths have been in Chicago.

“We’ve made so much progress, and by progress, I mean we’ve prevented infections, protected our healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed, and we’ve saved lives,” Lightfoot said.

“We would hate to see that be reversed. And the communities and people that have been most impacted by this outbreak – Black and Brown communities, and older people and those with under-lying health conditions – will suffer the most in any resurgence, so I implore people to continue to take this seriously,” she said.

One lingering concern for Chicago’s public health officials has been that recent civil unrest and demonstrations in the city could trigger another outbreak. Tens of thousands of people have been protesting the police killing of George Floyd, shopping and dining out after Lightfoot partially reopened the economy, and spending more time outside enjoying the warmer weather.

So far, there are positive signs in the metrics city leaders use to determine when to move into the next reopening phase, or move back. The number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Chicago continues to decline across racial groups, according to the city. And there are stable or declining rates of people who are hospitalized for COVID-19, admitted to intensive care units or dying of the virus.

Another key metric: The percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 keeps declining and is now below 10% across the city. This is called the positivity rate. So far, 1 out of about every 12 Chicagoans has been tested.

Still, city leaders are cautious.

“We have seen increases in about 20 other states at this point that reopened before Illinois did and before Chicago did,” Arwady said. “Our goal of course here is to ideally not see any of those increases.”

But if the Chicago did see cases rise, it has a plan. Arwady then broke down the new, color-coded new tracking system so Chicagoans can monitor the city’s progress in Lightfoot’s reopening plan:

* Green: Go. This is if Chicago is making progress.

* Yellow: Caution. The city would pause and not move ahead.

* Red: Stop. Chicago may need to reinstate some restrictions, like going back to Phase 2.

Chicago is in the green zone now for all metrics but testing capacity. That metric remains in yellow, the public health department said, because the city and state shut down testing sites amid large protests and looting.

The city also plans to adjust some metrics that it uses to consider when to move between reopening phases.

For example, the positivity rate needs to be less than 7% in order for the city to move into Phase 4. And if the rate climbs higher than 15% or there’s a sustained increase in cases and deaths, Chicagoans might have more restrictions once again.

In the current Phase 3, the positivity rate for cases in communities needs to be less than 15%, and less than 30% in so-called congregate settings, like nursing homes and homeless shelters. The new positivity rate goal is for the city overall, instead of having separate goals for communities and places where people live in large group settings.

The city on Friday also debuted a new online dashboard to help Chicagoans better understand what COVID-19 looks like in their neighborhoods, particularly in African American and Latino communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health on WBEZ’s politics and government team. Follow her @kschorsch.