Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday announced a new statewide mask mandate for schools and all private long-term care facilities and mandatory vaccinations for employees within some state facilities like prisons and veterans’ homes.
The moves aim to address skyrocketing COVID-19 cases as a result of the more contagious delta variant, which has shown signs of growing exponentially in Illinois and the rest of the nation.
After a summertime lull, the Democratic governor said new coronavirus cases have jumped nearly ten-fold since earlier this summer with COVID-related hospitalizations, including those requiring intensive care, more than doubling in the past month. Pritzker also cited a similar increase in utilization of ventilators by COVID patients.
“As your governor, it’s my duty to say that we all must take immediate and urgent action to slow the spread of the delta variant. People are dying who don’t have to die. It’s heartbreaking, and it impacts us all,” Pritzker said in Chicago Wednesday afternoon.
“Given our current trajectory, we have a limited amount of time right now to stave off the highest peaks of this surge going into the fall. We need to act now or risk what we’re starting to see in places like Florida, which has once again set a new record for COVID hospitalizations,” he said.
The mask mandate for schools the governor unveiled Wednesday requires immediate facial coverings for all students, faculty and staff at preschool through 12th grade schools and day cares, regardless of whether someone is vaccinated.
There are 1.8 million children 11 and under in Illinois not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.
“We have the legal authority to enforce this, and we will, if necessary,” the governor said. “What we think will happen is schools will follow this and do the right thing. This is about keeping the children and their families safe.”
The governor’s school mask order applies to all public and private schools throughout the state. That means the roughly 62,000 students attending 199 Catholic schools run by the Archdiocese of Chicago in Cook and Lake counties are covered, as well. Chicago public schools had already said they would require masks for everyone come fall.
Rise in cases, particularly among unvaccinated
In terms of the pandemic, the summer had been relatively tranquil in Illinois, with nearly three in four residents having gotten at least one dose of the vaccine and 51% of all Illinoisans – or more than 6.5 million people – being fully vaccinated, state data show.
But with new vaccinations trailing off and the delta variant taking hold — primarily among unvaccinated people — new case counts have jumped and created a dilemma for public school systems across the state. Many of those districts are due to open later this month with partially unvaccinated enrollments, particularly in elementary and middle schools.
Confronted with the new delta variant, the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention did an about-face on its guidance for indoor masking in late July. In May, the federal public health agency had said vaccinated individuals didn’t have to wear masks indoors, but those recommendations changed as new cases jumped nationwide.
Republicans were quick to condemn the governor’s mask mandate for schools, characterizing it as an infringement on local control and on individual parenting choices.
“For over a year, the governor cut out a co-equal branch of government and ruled the state with unilateral authority instead of working collaboratively to handle the COVID-19 pandemic in Illinois,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs.
“Gov. Pritzker must put this continuing power trip aside and allow local health departments, elected officials, schools and most importantly, parents, to make decisions on these serious issues to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” Durkin said.
But the governor’s announcement was met with praise from a union representing many Illinois teachers and school staff, considering that students under the age of 12 are still not eligible to be vaccinated and the vaccination rates of those ages 12 to 18 remain fairly low.
“It’s the prudent thing to do when you look at the levels of transmission with this new delta variant,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, a union that represents more than 100,000 members. “We think it’s a pretty small price to pay to keep kids and their families healthy and safe and to make sure school can go on. That’s what everybody wants, right? We want to be back in our classrooms, in-person, like as normal as it can be. And wearing a mask to do that is really not a very high hill to climb, we think.”
Some school districts welcome mandate
Some school districts weren’t adhering to the CDC guidance after facing intense community blowback on requiring students to wear masks. The new orders coming from Springfield will enable school boards wary of that controversy to shift blame to state government. It’ll also be a relief to some parents in districts that previously decided to make masks optional.
Ronak Maisuria’s child is an incoming first grader in suburban Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unit District 200. Her six-year-old is not eligible for the vaccine, and Maisuria has been advocating for a mask requirement this summer.
“I am happy that [Pritzker] is stepping up and doing the right thing, but I think this should have happened weeks ago,” Maisuria told WBEZ Wednesday, adding that the debate over whether to require masks got really intense in her district. “Because the governor waited this long, unfortunately, it stoked the animosity and the hostility and the divisions in these communities, and it pitted people against each other.”
Southwest suburban Plainfield Community Unit District 202 Superintendent Lane Abrell said the mask requirement brings a sense of relief not just for school superintendents, but also local school boards.
Abrell’s school district decided in mid-July not to require masks. He hopes the language on the new mandate is clear and easy to enforce. That could save a lot of disruptions to the traditional school day when classes begin on Aug. 18, he said.
“If the best practice is ‘you wear a mask’ then just say that to us and we will do it,” Abrell said. “There are all kinds of things that we are told what to do … something as important as this, tell us, be clear.”
Schools are also battling lagging vaccination rates among children who’ve been eligible to get the shot. Dr. Frank Belmonte, chief medical officer at Advocate Children’s Hospital, said his hospital is seeing rising cases, a rise he attributes in part to resistance among parents to get their children vaccinated. That, he says, is fueled in part by misinformation on social media.
“I think a lot of it is just fear. A lot of it is lack of knowledge,” he said. “So really, talking to your pediatrician or family medicine doctor is probably the best place to get the information.”
State employees face vaccination mandate
Also under Pritzker’s orders Wednesday, all public and private nursing homes across Illinois will be required to have staff, residents and visitors wear masks when inside their facilities, even though those locales have high rates of vaccination among their elderly residents.
And, effective Oct. 4, the governor is imposing mandatory vaccinations for all state employees within state-run congregate facilities like state veterans’ homes, prisons, facilities for the developmentally disabled and psychiatric hospitals.
Pritzker cited data that showed residents in some of those facilities, including state veterans’ homes, have vaccination rates as high as 90 percent or even 100 percent. But it’s a different story for employees in those state-run locations, many of whom have shunned vaccinations.
“They run the risk of carrying the virus into work with them, and then it’s the residents who are ending up seriously sick hospitalized or worse,” Pritzker said. “It’s a breach of safety. It’s fundamentally wrong, and in Illinois, it’s going to stop.”
But the union representing the largest chunk of state workers hinted at resistance, stressing the issue needs to be negotiated at the bargaining table.
“Certainly, more can be done, and our union is prepared to continue to work to further strengthen COVID prevention measures. We believe such efforts represent a better path forward than rigid mandates,” said Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council 31.
Lynch also vouched for the work employees in state-run congregate settings have done since the pandemic began.
“We strongly oppose any effort to define them as part of the problem rather than recognizing their dedication and the vitally important contributions they have made to protecting health and saving lives,” she said.
Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said that all staff in Illinois prisons will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 4, 2021. She said the state is currently negotiating with labor unions on the possible consequences for staff who remain unvaccinated.
Only 44% of IDOC staff are fully vaccinated at this time, according to Hess. Meanwhile the independent prison watchdog John Howard Association reports that about 70% of prison inmates are vaccinated.
“IDOC is committed to taking all measures necessary to protect the health and safety of staff, individuals in custody, and Illinois communities,” Hess said in a statement.
The state logged nearly 2,700 new COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday compared to 462 on July 7.
Similarly, coronavirus-related hospitalizations across the state are rising. More than 1,100 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday compared to 423 on July 7, state data show.
Like other states, Illinois also has seen a handful of breakthrough COVID-19 cases among those who have been vaccinated. But they’re still rare.
As of July 28, state data show 644 vaccinated Illinoisans had been hospitalized with COVID-19, and 169 vaccinated people have died since January from the coronavirus. Vaccinated COVID patients currently in hospital beds represent an infinitesimal subset – .00009 percent – of the 6.5 million now fully vaccinated.
WBEZ’s Patrick Smith and Adora Namigadde contributed.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois government and politics for WBEZ. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers Chicago schools, classrooms and youth culture. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney, @tonyjarnold and @adrianacardmag.