Chicago businesses Friday will be able to fill to the door with patrons again as the city and state of Illinois fully reopen, marking the most drastic step towards “normalcy” since the pandemic began many months ago.
The full reopening isn’t without caution, as experts note dwindling vaccination numbers and still-occuring COVID-19 cases and deaths. Masks will remain a requirement in places like public transit, schools, hospitals and businesses that choose to mandate them. Unvaccinated individuals are urged to either get vaccinated, or keep masking, avoiding crowds and social distancing.
City officials cite a sustained, drastic decrease in daily new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in their decision to open weeks ahead of a previous July 4 estimate. But some remain concerned it’s happening too soon.
Regardless of whether you plan to ease restrictions in your own life, here’s what you need to know as we all enter a new — potentially final — phase of the pandemic.
The basics — Phase 5 changes and COVID-19 numbers
Phase 5, largely seen as the last phase before the pandemic is “over,” has one major tenant: it removes all restrictions on capacity limits, and on operating hours, for all businesses.
Yes, you can run to the liquor store for that last night cap as late as 2 or 3 a.m. again. And restaurants and bars can operate at 100% capacity, rather than the 75% mandated under the state’s previous so-called Bridge Phase.
But, the state won’t be out of some of the emergency executive order rules Gov. JB Pritzker put in place, which were extended on May 28 until June 26. Those include some social distancing requirements in preK-12 schools; a temporary moratorium on evictions; a requirement that insurers cover telehealth services, and more.
As far as where we stand with COVID-19 in Chicago, Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady describes it as an “exponential decay.”
“When an outbreak is growing really quickly you get this exponential increase at the beginning,” she said Tuesday. “But then when an outbreak is coming under control, you’ll see this exponential decay because as fewer people get infected, fewer people spread it, you can actually see that drop off pretty significantly.”
Chicago has seen a 42% drop in cases compared to just a week ago, and that’s expected to continue to decline. The city is seeing around 4 deaths per day, which is one more than daily averages in the summer of 2020. Hospitalizations are also down drastically, with just 10 per day compared to 110 at the beginning of this year.
But cases are quickly concentrating among unvaccinated Chicagoans and in areas the city hasn’t vaccinated well. Take the city’s 60617 zip code, for instance. City data show the South Side zip code has one of the lowest vaccination rates, with just 32% of residents fully vaccinated, as compared to 52% citywide. The area is seeing some of the worst COVID metrics of any zip code, with a 3.3% positivity rate, compared to a record-low of 1.4% citywide.
Arwady said Tuesday that 97% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 98% of COVID-19 deaths since mid-January have been among unvaccinated Chicagoans.
Unvaccinated in the time of reopening
This is cause for concern for some health experts who think the reopening could exacerbate cases among unvaccinated Chicagoans who may start to feel more comfortable partaking socially as the city reopens.
Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease expert at the University of Chicago, said there “a lot of people out there that I don’t think we’re talking about” who may take COVID-19 seriously, but refuse to get vaccinated.
“And we don’t have very good guidelines for them right now,” Landon said. “If you are unvaccinated, you are not good … [Especially] if you’re around other people that are unvaccinated, you are not safe.”
Landon is urging unvaccinated Chicagoans not to get excited about the loosened restrictions, noting the guidance for unvaccinated individuals remains unchanged: stay masked, avoid crowds, social distance.
“I think people who promote remaining unvaccinated need to also be promoting wearing masks and taking precautions, because otherwise they’re really putting people in a bad place.”
Eventually, Landon predicts, unvaccinated people could benefit from herd immunity, and become protected against the virus based on the sheer fact that it’s no longer able to spread. She notes even as we get closer to herd immunity, the risk is simultaneously increasing for unvaccinated people as cases concentrate among them.
Vaccinated, but not yet comfortable
When Dr. Arwady held a regularly-scheduled virtual Q&A segment Tuesday, she started by saying she hopes to “inspire some of you who are concerned about the fact that we’re moving ahead with reopening.”
The doctor spent 45 minutes reviewing the city’s decreasing COVID-19 trends to which one viewer, who said they were fully vaccinated, responded: “Thank you Dr. Arwady. I do honestly trust the information you have given. It’s been hard to move away from mental/emotional worries.”
Emotionally-charged concerns about reopening, or about letting your own guard down, are not uncommon, Dr. Landon notes.
Landon, who herself wished the city would have waited until July 4 to reopen, said she has words of advice for those who are fully vaccinated (two weeks post- your last shot), yet weary.
“People who are vaccinated don’t need to worry that they’re part of the problem … and that by eating out, and by spending time in crowded environments, or by hanging out with other people, they’re not making the problem worse, the evidence is clear,” she said.
“They’re not being socially irresponsible by resuming their life. In fact, they’re being socially responsible because somebody has to restart our economy and get us back to normal, and the unvaccinated people shouldn’t be it.”
Precautions to keep in place
However, health experts and others say there are precautions vaccinated people should stick to — including keeping a mask handy when out and about, respecting businesses that keep mandates in place (which experts have recommended), and staying home if you feel unwell. If you have symptoms of COVID-19, whether you’re vaccinated or not, you should get tested.
In addition, some restaurant workers hope to see certain measures, for patrons vaccinated or not, remain in place.
Carlos Enriquez, with the group the Restaurant Organizing Project, which advocates for workers rights, said regardless of the restaurant’s rules, he hopes guests will assume that mask mandates are still in place when entering a restaurant or speaking with a server.
“We started to see a lot of signs that say,if you’re not vaccinated, then you’re required to wear a mask, but it’s like are workers then supposed to be policing who’s vaccinated and who isn’t? So it would make the life of servers and hosts easier if they’re not put in that situation.”
He adds the practice of tipping more than 20% that the pandemic prompted, wouldn’t hurt either, as restaurant workers continue to advocate for better working conditions, and as the industry tries to beef up short-staffed establishments.
While most COVID-19 “phases” outlined by the state have described what it would take to regress to a stricter level, Phase 5 does not. It simply states “All sectors of the economy reopen” … and that “public health experts focus on lessons learned and building out the public health infrastructure needed to meet and overcome future challenges.
Previous phases, like the Bridge Phase, outlined specific trends. For instance, we’d move back to the lower phase if that state saw more than 150 daily hospitalizations a day, plus increased and sustained case resurgence.
While the state doesn’t outline those specific trends in Phase 5, it’s assumed that a resurgence (of a new, contagious variant, for example), would lead to restrictions.
“We don’t know for sure what the future will hold,” Arwady said to Mayor Lori Lightfoot when announcing last week the city would reopen with the state. “Could we have a surge in the fall, could we have a surge in the winter. If we did, that would show up in people who are not vaccinated. But right now, I completely agree with you [that we should reopen].”
Mariah Woelfel covers city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.