Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced on Wednesday, Feb. 9, that COVID-19 infection and hospitalization numbers are falling rapidly enough that the indoor mask mandate will probably be lifted on Feb. 28, if the trend continues.
The mask mandate for K-12 schools, however, will remain in effect for a few weeks after that.
The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, fueled the pandemic’s worst surge at the beginning of the year. As other places have seen, Omicron infections retreated as precipitously as they rose.
Pritzker cited hospital capacity improvements as the key factor in the decision to remove the mask mandate, which went into effect at the end of August 2021. He said intensive care units statewide now have 20% of their capacity available. Four weeks ago, available beds were at less than 8% of capacity.
“We are on track to come out on the other side of this latest COVID storm sooner than even the doctors expected,” he said.
Pritzker, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike and Dr. Emily Landon, executive director of infection prevention and control at University of Chicago Medicine, each offered words of caution along with optimism about the trajectory of infections.
Pritzker said businesses, organizations and local governments can still maintain mask mandates and other measures more restrictive than state guidelines.
Ezike noted that the federal government still has mask mandates that apply to transportation, healthcare facilities and congregate care centers.
“This isn’t an end to the pandemic,” Landon said. “It’s not going back to normal, although I hope it feels better than the last couple of months.”
Pritzker said relaxing the mask mandate for schools could happen “in weeks,” though not before Feb. 28. He said the cautious approach to schools is based on their characteristics: fewer students are vaccinated than adults, students and staff are in close proximity for longer periods of time and social distancing can be difficult.
Landon said data shows that schools in the country without mask mandates have been more likely to go remote or suspend classes than those with mask requirements.
“We need to have a higher bar for schools,” she said. “Nobody wants kids to be back in remote learning.”
Pritzker was asked about the Sangamon County court ruling Friday that granted a temporary restraining order on the school mask mandate. The state is appealing the decision.
“It takes away one of the tools going forward,” he said. “We may see surges in the future. That case decided by one judge shouldn’t keep us from trying to keep the entire state safe.”
Homewood District 153’s school board decided in a special meeting Sunday that its mask mandate would remain in place in spite of the ruling.