Masks will soon be required for all in indoor public spaces in Chicago regardless of vaccination status.
Officials announced the new mask mandate — effective Friday — at a news conference Tuesday, as the city is consistently seeing more than 400 new COVID-19 cases per day, currently up 21% from a week ago. That puts Chicago in a so-called “high risk” category outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Masks will be required in places like gyms, bars, restaurants, and even common areas of condo buildings for all people 2 years and older. The mandate will remain in place as long as Chicago continues to see more than 400 cases per day, said Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.
“When we move and consistently are under 400 cases per day, it will revert to a mask recommendation,” she said. “And when we move back under 200 cases per day, that recommendation would be removed. … We are not anticipating, at this point, adding additional business restrictions. However, we’re watching what happens with these metrics,” Arwady said.
The city could reintroduce further restrictions — such as capacity limits or operating hour restrictions — if cases rise above 800 per day, or if “hospital numbers start to move in ways that look untenable,” Arwady said.
Hospitalizations and deaths have climbed significantly in the past month and about 2 people are dying per day from COVID-19 in Chicago. But Arwady notes those numbers are well below previous surges.
While Chicago was seeing around 150 hospitalizations during a 2020 winter surge, and around 75-100 per day during a bump in spring 2021, the city is seeing just around 18 hospitalizations a day currently, Arwady said.
Cases numbers are also well below previous surges.
“In our peak in November, December, we were averaging about 2,500 cases a day, with some days getting up close to 3,500,” Arwady said. “So 400 cases per day is concerning. It’s why we’re acting. But in terms of where we’ve been as a city, it is not a cause for alarm. It is a cause for caution.”
Chicago’s previous mask mandate was lifted in May, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with guidance that said fully vaccinated people can go maskless indoors. The CDC later walked that guidance back as the new delta variant spread rapidly, advising indoor masking for all residents in areas at greater risk of significant COVID-19 transmission.
Although Cook County, including Chicago, and surrounding counties previously fell under the CDC’s “substantial” transmission category (one notch below “high” where the city sits now), officials refrained from reinstating a mandate, instead advising residents to mask up regardless of vaccination status.
Earlier this month, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Arwady held a news conference the weekend of the Lollapalooza Music Festival to urge people, again, to get vaccinated and mask up. At that point, the city had just started seeing an average of more than 200 new COVID-19 cases a day, with an average of one death per day, and wasn’t yet ready to issue a mask mandate or increase other restrictions.
“We have no goal or current plans to close down Chicago again. But we need people, please, once again, to step up,” Arwady said.
With the rise in cases and efforts to vaccinate the remaining eligible population lagging, Gov. JB Pritzker had earlier this month announced mask mandates for state facilities and schools, and Chicago Public Schools announced vaccination mandates for employees. Some businesses across Illinois had already begun mandating that employees be masked and vaccinated, and either requiring or encouraging patrons wear masks and show proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests for admission.
For his part, Pritzker endorsed Lightfoot’s citywide mask mandate on Tuesday, saying he’s “very pleased” when a local government takes steps to make its residents safer. He seemed to dismiss the idea of a mask mandate for the entire state, however he left the possibility open for enacting such a mandate at another time.
“I haven’t been reticent to consider mitigations when they’re necessary and of course we’re always watching the numbers to make sure that we’re bending the curve as we need to,” Pritzker said.
Some advocates and healthcare professionals have urged the state and city from the beginning to keep its mask mandate, warning it would be hard to reinstate once lifted. That includes Dr. Eve Bloomgarden, an endocrinologist at Northwestern Medicine and the COO of IMPACT, a group of healthcare workers that pushed back against loosened mask mandates.
“IMPACT strongly supports reinstating a mask mandate indoors,” she said in response to Tuesday’s news. “This is a way to avoid more restrictive mitigation measures so we don’t move backwards and so that we protect our communities.”
While the mandate comes down from the city, enforcement largely falls on individual businesses, which can lead to confrontations between employees and uncooperative customers. The news has been trickling down to businesses Tuesday, with some already preparing to reprint and laminate old, mask-mandate signs.
“Our entire team is vaxxed so we haven’t been enforcing [mask-wearing] with the team or guests,” said Matt Lobman, assistant general manager at Forbidden Root Restaurant & Brewery in West Town. “But as soon as Friday hits, we’ll be ready for it.”
Lobman said the restaurant did away with its mask mandate in mid-June, but has been anticipating its return for the past couple of weeks as cases have risen across the city.
“Obviously it’s not ideal,” he said. “It would be nice to keep moving forward, but if it’s a matter of keeping people safe, maintaining our livelihood and staying open, I see the benefit of having accountability with ourselves and our customers. It’s an easy task to manage when it comes down to it.”
The city is holding information sessions this week for businesses to provide an overview of what the mask mandate entails. Businesses can sign up at www.chicago.gov/businesseducation.
WBEZ reporter Tony Arnold contributed.
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.