Pritzker to drop mask mandate indoors by Feb. 28, but not yet for schools

If COVID-19 metrics continue to improve, Illinoisans can cast off their masks indoors in most public spaces on Feb. 28, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday, but schools will need to wait until later in the spring.

"We are now seeing the fastest rate of decline in COVID hospitalization metrics since the pandemic began," Pritzker said. "Our daily total of COVID patients has fallen from over 7,300 to about 2,500 today, a 66% drop.

"If these trends continue, and we expect them to, on Monday, Feb. 28, we will lift the indoor mask requirements for the state."

Universal masking will stay in place at elementary, middle and high schools likely until some weeks after Feb. 28, Pritzker said.

However, a downstate judge on Friday put a temporary restraining order on mask requirements affecting nearly 170 school districts, including dozens of suburban ones, resulting in diverging face covering policies across the state.

School environments pose a higher risk for COVID-19 infections, especially with the highly contagious omicron variant circulating and children ages 5 to 17 having lower vaccination rates than adults, officials said.

"We have kids going to school six to eight hours a day, five days a week, week after week," Pritzker said. "The reality is, schools are quite unusual. Thousands of people often are interacting in a single day and that's very different, and we're trying to take that into account."

Cook County and Chicago have their own indoor mask mandates, but both health departments announced separately Wednesday they also could lift masking rules on Feb. 28 if metrics such as those for cases and hospitalizations decline.

Pritzker noted that many local jurisdictions and businesses have their own mask requirements and entities are allowed to adopt more stringent rules than the state.

Masking will still be necessary on public transit, in health care settings, at day cares, and in congregate settings such as prisons and long-term care facilities.

"While masks will no longer be required in most indoor locations beginning Feb. 28, they are still recommended," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said. "Let me be clear: COVID is not gone." Instead, Illinoisans will need to adjust to "coexist with COVID," she said.

The mask mandate was instituted in August 2021, amid rising caseloads, and Pritzker, who is seeking reelection, faces pressure on multiple sides of the issue. At least five other Democratic governors in the country have rolled back mask rules.

Illinois Republican Senate Leader Dan McConchie said in a statement, "The governor's continued piecemeal approach isn't working and leads to confusion and frustration."

Republican gubernatorial candidate and Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said Pritzker was being inconsistent and "Illinois is being led by a governor who puts politics and special interests ahead of parents and their children."

Meanwhile, harassed school district administrators just want some clarity after a week so far of walkouts, demonstrations, chaotic board meetings and anxiety in the wake of the judge's mask suspension.

Elgin Area Community Unit District U-46 is still requiring masks.

"While our students have been amazing at complying with the mitigation strategies, the return to masks being optional everywhere but in schools at the end of the month will certainly add pressure to school principals and teachers to enforce, and superintendents and school boards to explain," Superintendent Tony Sanders said.

So far, "there are no clear metrics from the state regarding when schools can reduce their mitigation strategies. I would like the state to provide our local health departments the ability to determine locally when we can reduce mitigation strategies, which might include making masks optional."

State officials didn't give specific school metrics, but University of Chicago Medicine's Dr. Emily Landon, a Pritzker health adviser, said cases and hospitalizations need to keep decreasing, and it's important that a new subvariant of omicron, BA. 2, does not slow the positive trajectory.

"No one wants kids to be back in remote learning," she said.

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association said "this is a sure sign of hope for many restaurants throughout our state still struggling to rebuild their businesses."

The Pritzker administration is fighting the restraining order and lawsuits filed on behalf of parents who object to the mask mandate. Attorney General Kwame Raoul has appealed Judge Raylene Grischow's ruling.

"Throughout every minute of this deadly global pandemic, the people of Illinois have demonstrated a willingness to look out for one another and to rise above the loud minority voices who have used this emergency to nay-say, bicker, polarize and divide," Pritzker said.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker announces Wednesday that the statewide mask mandate will be lifted on Monday, Feb. 28. Courtesy of State of Illinois
In a news conference Wednesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced lifting the mask mandate on Feb. 28. Dr. Ngozi Ezike warned that the virus will not be gone on that date and residents should still do what is necessary to stay healthy. Courtesy of State of Illinois
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