Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday that at the end of the month he will lift the requirement for face coverings to be worn in most indoor spaces to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the mandate will stay in place for K-12 schools where students, teachers and staff are clustered together.
Pritzker said masks will no longer be required to enter restaurants, grocery stores or other indoor spaces starting Feb. 28. The Democratic governor cited plummeting hospitalization numbers three weeks after the omicron variant had peaked in the state, and he praised residents for getting vaccinated and following face-covering rules.
“Vaccines work. Masks work,” Pritzker said during a Chicago briefing. “And as a result of them and the tremendous commitment of our state’s residents, we are on track to come out on the other side of this latest COVID storm in better shape than even the doctors expected.”
Although the change in policy doesn’t apply to schools, the Democratic governor has appealed a circuit court ruling last week that found he had overstepped by requiring face coverings for in-person learning.
Vaccination rates in schools are lower, it’s harder to keep an appropriate distance in hallways and classrooms and outbreaks in schools can spread quickly through a community, Pritzker said.
“The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population,”he said. “Schools need a little more time for community infection rates to drop for our youngest learners to become vaccine eligible and more parents to get kids vaccinated.”
Reporters had pressed Pritzker in recent days about whether he would ease Illinois’ mask mandate as other states have done lately, including New York.
Pritzker said municipalities and local organizations may set their own mask rules. Federally controlled places such as mass transit still require masks. Those exposed to COVID-19 or who have symptoms must wear masks.
“This isn’t an end to the pandemic and it’s not going back to normal …,” said Dr. Emily Landon, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Chicago Medical School. “This is a virus that’s ruled by biology. It doesn’t negotiate with us or care about how we feel about it. We have to adjust to it and we have to take advantage of the breaks that we get. We’re headed into one of those breaks.”
During the worst of the surge in cases involving the omicron variant, hospitalizations soared to a peak of 7,320 the week ending Jan. 14. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported an average of 29,500 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 that day.
Last week, with an average of 7,320 cases daily, the hospitalizations dropped to 3,135; Pritzker said it’s now about 2,500.
Since late January 2020, when the virus first crossed into Illinois, it has sickened 2.96 million people, taking the lives of 31,296 as of last week.