As the pandemic eases in Illinois, everywhere in the state except Chicago will enter a less-restrictive phase Friday that will allow for the partial reopening of offices, restaurants, bars, stores, barbershops and salons.
The move into what Gov. JB Pritzker has characterized as Phase 3 of a five-step reopening plan represents a significant milestone: COVID-19 diagnoses and related hospital admissions have dropped for 28 days and a surplus of healthcare capacity exists.
“Our goal is and always has been to keep people safe from this coronavirus while we restore more of our normal activities,” the governor said at his daily coronavirus briefing. “So it’s important that we remain careful about continuing to wear face coverings, washing hands, maintaining six feet of distance, wiping down surfaces and using hand sanitizer and other mitigations.
“Let’s not move backward. But instead, let’s move forward together,” he said.
Chicago won’t enter its version of Phase 3 until June 3, and the entry will be more limited.
Elsewhere around the state, the looming advancement came as yet more Illinoisans fell victim to COVID-19. State public health authorities announced in the past 24 hours, another 104 people died from coronavirus, bringing the statewide death toll to 5,186 since March 16.
As deaths still mount, the new phase Illinois is moving into is a measure of good news and a reflection that the grueling nine-plus weeks Illinoisans have been forced to stay at home have carried measurable public-health benefits.
But what’s coming Friday still is a far cry from the normalcy that existed pre-pandemic.
Earlier this week, the state published 10 sets of guidelines about how operators of stores, offices, bars, restaurants and youth day camps, to name a few, should conduct themselves in Phase 3.
At offices, for example, state public health authorities are encouraging employers to permit as many employees as possible continue to work from home; require facial coverings for those who do come to work; avoiding seating employees across from one another; limiting elevator capacity to allow for six-feet of distancing; and minimizing use of shared work equipment, among other things.
At bars and restaurants, only outdoor seating is allowed, involving parties of six or smaller.
At salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors and massage therapy venues, facial coverings are required at all times for customers and employees, and massages are limited to no more than 30-minute sessions.
And for youth sports, drills, practices and lessons that don’t involve contact, and allow for six-feet of social distancing, are now allowed. Youth day camps are allowed, as long as all participants are wearing facial coverings and maintaining six-feet of separation. Water fountains are to be turned off.
Pritzker said it will take several weeks before it’s clear whether the loosening of restrictions that have been in place since mid-March will result in any public-health consequences. If that happens, he warned the state could see conditions tightened once again.
“One day, two days, seven days, even 14 days isn’t enough. We’ve seen in other states. It sometimes takes three weeks, even more, before you really start to see the effects of opening up,” the governor said.
“It’s possible that if we have a surge, a spike and we need to quell that spike, we might potentially have to move backward into the phases. That’s not something any of us wants to do,” Pritzker said.
Asked whether he intends to mark the entry into Phase 3 by dining this weekend alfresco at a city restaurant or getting his hair cut, the governor was noncommittal but hinted he was having trouble getting into the barbershop.
“I don’t have any plans to dine outside over the weekend, although my wife’s birthday was this last week, and we have a little patio at our house. So we did dine outside, just our family together,” the governor said.
“Oh, I’m going to get my hair cut at some point,” Pritzker continued, saying he needed one. “I don’t have an appointment yet, and I understand appointments are hard to come by at this point. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.”
In other COVID-19 developments:
Unemployment claims spike: New unemployment data show the state of Illinois processed another 58,263 new claims for regular unemployment for the week ending May 23. In all, the Illinois Department of Employment Security has processed more than 1.3 million claims for unemployment benefits from March 1 through May 23. That’s nearly 12 times the number of claims the department processed over the same period last year.
New nursing home rules: The Illinois Department of Public Health is now going to require long-term care facilities to establish their own testing plan for COVID-19. That includes testing staff and residents when there is an outbreak — but also when there isn’t one. Pritzker said this rule is necessary to give IDPH “additional teeth” to force facilities to establish testing protocols. Some privately-run, long-term care facilities, Pritzker said, declined free testing supplies and IDPH visits. Under the rule, IDPH could fine or even suspend a nursing home’s state license. Dr. Ngozi Ezike said almost 44% of Illinois’ COVID-19 deaths were in long-term care facilities.
No commitment for schools to reopen: Pritzker would not say whether Illinois schools would continue remote learning when school starts again in the fall. “It’s unfortunate we can’t see that far into the future with this virus,” Pritzker said. “What we’re trying to do is set the foundation for any outcome, but my hope and desire is for us to have all of our kids back in school in the fall.”