'Bring it on!': Suburban residents, visitors enjoy first day of the state's full reopening
Welcome to the next stage of freedom.
After more than a year of navigating evolving COVID-19 mandates and mitigation strategies, Illinoisans have officially entered Phase 5 of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's reopening plan today, marking a significant milestone in the fight against the pandemic.
Most social gathering restrictions are now eliminated, and capacity limits have been lifted at restaurants, offices, entertainment venues and other establishments throughout the Chicago area.
Here's how suburban residents and visitors are spending the first day of the state's full reopening.
Shaun and Amanda Heitzman of Aurora got to do something for their two children Friday morning they haven't been able to do in more than a year: surprise them with a trip to the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville.
Their youngest, Lorelei, is almost 2 and was too young to remember the last time she'd crawled around the museum. But the trip brought a big smile to the face of 5-year-old Henry.
"He was excited to be here," Shaun Heitzman said while Henry, who loves building things, played with construction pieces next to his sister.
Shaun Heitzman said he and his wife felt comfortable bringing their children to the museum because of the precautions staff members were taking, such as frequent cleaning and requiring everyone above the age of 2 to wear masks.
"I knew they were taking their time to make sure everyone was going to be safe," Shaun Heitzman said.
The museum opened Wednesday at reduced capacity and is requiring all guests to order tickets ahead of time on their website at dupagechildrens.org.
"This is the longest continuously that she's worn a mask without pulling it down," Mike Renfro of Wheaton said of his daughter, Mia, as she played with her friend, Rose Rodriguez.
The girls, both 2 years old, were playing at one of the many activity stations at the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville.
"It's great, she's so stimulated here," Renfro said. "When we're at the grocery store, she pulls it down and is always messing with it."
Kate Rodriguez of Glen Ellyn said she was so glad to have something for the kids to do that was social.
"It's good for them to start doing the things that they were used to doing before this," Rodriguez said as the two girls walked next to each other on a raised platform. "It's so nice to have a different change of scenery."
Renfro said he had used a hair dryer and cardboard tubes to try to make an at-home version of his daughter's favorite museum features, a series of air jets that send colorful balls gusting around. It didn't quite live up to the real thing.
"You can do 1% of this stuff at home, but to come here is so much better," he said.
Throughout the pandemic, Chuck Barrett of Cary would ride his bike past The Tracks early in the morning, see owner Leo Florio spraying down the outdoor patio, and ask about the restaurant's status.
A regular customer, Barrett missed dining at the community hot spot and chatting with the staff members. But he takes care of his parents, who are in their late 80s, and didn't want to risk infecting them or anyone else in his close circle.
As restrictions were loosened, he and a friend cautiously visited The Tracks on occasion to dine outdoors -- "just to dip our toes in the water," he said. He started coming back more frequently once he was vaccinated and felt "much more comfortable."
The principal agent at Frisch & Barrett Insurance in Cary, Barrett and his office staff went to lunch Friday to celebrate a secretary's birthday. It was only the second time the group has been out to eat together since the pandemic hit.
"Now that everything's opening up, everyone's really excited to come back out," Barrett said. "Today we asked, 'Where are we going to go for her birthday?' and we were like, 'We've got to go to The Tracks.'"
Michelle Doucet of Shorewood said as soon as she read the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville was reopening, she made plans to bring her four children for a much-needed visit.
"There was no hesitation for us," said Doucet, who had brought her children to the museum weekly before the pandemic. "I'm definitely going to make it a weekly thing again. We were in the house for way too long."
Doucet home-schools her children -- Zoe, 7; Zeus, 5; Zora, 3; and Zane, 1 -- whom she calls the "Z-squad," and said that during the pandemic, it has been hard to do regular activities and avoid boredom.
"We tried to do little themed days, from cooking (to) making a craft, but it's definitely not the same as here where it's all in one," Doucet said, while the "Z-squad" constructed mini-golf hole obstacles out of construction paper. "We came with an empty trunk and we're going to fill it up."
Though masks are no longer required for those who are vaccinated, many shoppers at The Streets of Woodfield continued to wear them Friday morning, including about half of the small groups entering the Legoland Discovery Center in the first two hours of business.
Jime Roman stopped his scampering sons long enough to take their photo under the giant Lego giraffe straddling the doorway to the entertainment attraction in the Schaumburg shopping center. But all three kept their masks on.
"I want to inch my way back into society. I'm not ready to go full blown yet," the Oak Park father said. "We'll just see how it goes. I'm a little concerned about everyone losing their minds and everyone going out. Hopefully, the numbers keep going in a positive direction and we can get back to normal."
Gail O'Hanley, who was visiting from Tennessee, was with her daughter, Michelle, and her three grandchildren -- and an armload of Lego boxes.
"We're ready. (The state) needs to open. People need the socialization whether with a mask or not," she said.
She has noticed much more traffic lately in her monthly trips to visit family in the area. She is still unvaccinated and wore a mask.
"I'm still on the teeter-totter about that," O'Hanley said. "I know it's probably the right thing to do, and I want to be around for these guys, but it's just like any other worry. It's about getting the virus."
The Tracks Bar and Grill has been a community gathering space and a staple of downtown Cary for about 40 years. So when the restaurant temporarily shut down in the spring of 2020, employees and customers alike felt the void.
Slowly but surely, The Tracks was able to reopen throughout the past year, first with carryout orders -- a new feature during the pandemic -- and then welcoming customers onto the outdoor patio, said Kelly Foley, a 12-year employee and Cary resident. Now with the state fully reopen and restrictions lifted, she said, "people feel much better."
"I think once the summer hit is really when things started feeling more normal. It's been great," Foley said. "We have so many regulars here, and after a year, you miss out on so much. It's nice to see everybody again. Everyone seems happy."
Customers dined throughout the establishment during the Friday lunch rush, including co-workers Chris Olson of Algonquin, Dave Barba of Arlington Heights and Ken Purczynski of Prospect Heights.
The trio has worked from home since the start of the pandemic and has yet to return to the office, but found an opportunity to meet up.
"It's good to start catching up again," Olson said.
The reopening of the state didn't exactly open a floodgate of commuters at the Elgin Metra station Friday morning.
Less than two dozen riders in total boarded the four trains heading downtown between 6 and 8 a.m.
And some of them didn't mind it that way.
"I'll be honest, I kind of miss the pandemic," said Oscar Villalpando of Elgin, who has been commuting downtown throughout the shutdown. "I kind of like less traffic and everything. Now I have to put up with the same BS as before the pandemic." Jaime De La Pena, a transplant nurse who works downtown at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said that while Friday didn't seem any different, she's been feeling the buildup downtown for a few weeks.
"It was nice. No traffic, not a lot of people crowded around, but it's picking up more lately," she said. "I guess I'm fine with it, but it was better when there weren't a lot of people."
Lorie Gallagher of Rockford, on the other hand, enthusiastically said to "bring it on!"
She and her brother, sister and niece were headed to Chicago to see the Cubs play the Cardinals, the first game with Wrigley Field operating at full capacity.
"I'm looking forward to that excitement and the fans and being shoulder to shoulder with people again," Gallagher said.
It's the first game they've been able to attend since 2019. They bought the tickets a month ago, before they knew today was "Re-Opening Day."
"It's going to be like the old days, We're so excited to be a part of it," she said. "This is what it's all about, being able to get back to some normalcy and be a part of something very traditional. It's what we do."