Cook County to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination at restaurants, fitness centers, bars

Cook County issued new rules effective Jan. 3 requiring people age 5 and older to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter county restaurants, fitness centers and bars, as well as entertainment and recreational venues serving food, to reduce spiraling cases.

“Earlier this year, we had hoped that we were on a path to finally put the pandemic behind us,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Thursday.

“But unfortunately, with the dual threat presented by the delta and omicron variants, and with cases, hospitalizations and deaths rising to new heights across Cook County, we must once again reassess and realign our strategies with what the science is telling us,” she said.

The policy comes on the heels of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot instituting similar rules Tuesday.

On Thursday, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 18,942 new COVID-19 cases. It's the highest daily count since the pandemic began.

Contributing to the latest virus surge is the omicron variant, which is extremely contagious and causing about 73% of new infections in the U.S.

Fitness centers include settings such as health clubs, yoga studios, group fitness classes, recreation centers and dance studios. Entertainment venues include movie theaters, concert venues, live theater and music spaces, sports arenas, bowling alleys and arcades.

Patrons in these facilities must remain masked and maintain social distancing when possible.

Exemptions are offered for houses of worship, grocery stores, office buildings, kindergarten through grade 12 schools and residential buildings.

Asked how long the rules would remain in place, Cook County Health Senior Medical Officer Rachel Rubin said, “We're looking at the metrics very carefully; we will evaluate the order on a weekly basis.”

Currently, with the “huge rise in cases, we need to have these mitigations in place. Also our hospitals are being stretched very thin and we would need to see improvements in these metrics,” Rubin noted. The concern is “how easily the omicron variant can spread among people, especially in crowded indoor settings.”

“At the moment,” Preckwinkle said, “what we see is omicron overwhelming us.”

Types of acceptable identification will include official vaccination cards or records, or a digital or physical photo of such a card or record, or an app providing documentation.

“We're asking our business people to help us keep people safe and help keep our businesses open,” Preckwinkle said. “And that means checking identification, checking vaccination status.”

To enforce the requirements, county health department inspectors who typically visit restaurants and pools will be enlisted to investigate complaints. Typically, the county or local authorities will work with business owners to help resolve issues.

Establishments with repeated complaints may be referred to the Cook County state's attorney's office, Rubin said.

Republican State Rep. Tom Morrison of Palatine called the move government overreach and said the county should focus on reducing violent crime instead.

“I have said this since the beginning of the pandemic, and I'll say it again: Endless COVID-19 mandates are an egregious overreach of executive power and circumvent our constitutional processes,” Morrison said in a statement.

Referring to the spring 2020 stay-at-home pandemic order, Preckwinkle said, “Frankly, I don't think any one of us want to be at that point again. The health care professionals have made it clear we are in the midst of a crisis and everyone has to row.”

Customers spending less than 10 minutes at a business — for example, ordering coffee and leaving — will not have to show proof of vaccination.

Cook County Health Department Senior Medical Officer Dr. Kiran Joshi talks about the increase in COVID-19 cases during a Zoom news conference Thursday. Zoom screenshot
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced new rules to reduce the spread of COVID-19 Thursday. Daily Herald File Photo
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