Pritzker reimposes statewide indoor mask mandate and vaccinations for several groups
Less than three months after declaring the state fully reopened, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered a return to mask wearing indoors to counter two months of surging COVID-19 cases caused by the proliferation of the highly contagious delta variant.
The mandate begins Monday and requires people to wear face masks at retail shops, fitness centers, movie theaters, restaurants, sporting events, and other public spaces and common areas. Masks were already required statewide inside schools, day cares, congregate living settings, health care facilities and public transit.
The governor also mandated vaccinations for all school and higher education employees, college students and health care workers in an effort to quell the state's COVID-19 caseload.
"The delta variant's rapid spread in communities with low vaccination rates is increasingly causing concern for a our hospital capacity in areas across Illinois," Pritzker said. "Our current vaccination rate is not enough to blunt the ferocity of the delta variant hospitalization surges in some areas."
The state is averaging more than 3,500 new cases a day this week, according to Illinois Department of Public Health records. The last time the state was averaging so many cases was in January, but the seven-day case positivity rate then was at 4%.
The state's seven-day case positivity rate on Thursday was at 5.4%, suggesting there are more infections that haven't been diagnosed because not as many tests are being conducted as in January, health officials said.
"I think a statewide mask mandate is absolutely essential," said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago's infectious disease prevention and control program. "Masks aren't perfect, but they are far more effective when both the person with COVID and the person being exposed are wearing them. Masking up can cut down on the 'dose' of COVID someone gets in any encounter, and that could make the difference between getting a breakthrough infection and staying well."
The governor's announcement drew a wide range of reactions from suburban shoppers and diners. Many acknowledged they are used to wearing masks already.
"Forcing anyone to do anything in this country, especially, I think, this mask mandate from Pritzker, is the wrong thing to do," said Naperville resident Rex Chang.
Bolingbrook's Laura Brantley said she understands the need for the mandate.
"Any governor is in a tough spot right now," she said. "I think the governor has to do what he feels is right to keep us all safe. Do I like it? No. But will I abide by it? Absolutely."
Chicago and suburban Cook County public health officials had already reimposed indoor mask mandates in recent days.
Pritzker said he was hoping local governments elsewhere would take the lead on increased mitigations when necessary, but that hasn't happened despite many areas of the state seeing a shortage of intensive care bed availability in hospitals because of the flood of COVID-19 cases.
The mask mandate does not require business owners to reduce capacity, as had been the case in previous mitigation efforts imposed by the state.
"Retailers remain dedicated to the health and safety of employees, customers and our communities," said Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. "We support the governor's mask mandate as a measured approach that ensures shoppers continue to have access to needed goods, food and medicine with minimal disruption.
"We ask all customers to abide by this public health order in a respectful manner," Karr continued. "We strongly encourage local law enforcement agencies to promptly assist us in ensuring employees are not subjected to verbal and physical abuse as we have seen in the past, and call on local health departments to enforce this order in uniform fashion."
• Daily Herald staff writer Brian Hill contributed to this report.