Pritzker, Ezike address plan to lift mask mandate
School mandates would remain in place for ‘coming weeks,’ pending court decision
By Jerry Nowicki
Capitol News Illinois
and Tim Hadac
If COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to decline for the rest of the month, Gov. JB Pritzker plans to lift his executive order that mandates face coverings indoors by Feb. 28. The plan does not apply to schools.
It’s unclear what level of rise in hospitalizations could lead the state to change its course, but Pritzker and health officials said at a news conference last week that such a scenario was not out of the question.
“It’s the end of the statewide mask mandate,” Pritzker said of the planned Feb. 28 lifting of the order. “But as we’ve all said, if things get very bad, I think we’ve seen this before with the onslaught of delta and then omicron (variants of the coronavirus), boy, masks really helped us to keep infection rates, transmission rates down. So, there may come a time in the future when that happens.”
Regardless of what happens with hospitalizations, masks will continue to be mandated at schools, on school busses and other public transportation, at nursing homes and congregate living facilities, and at day cares beyond March 1.
“The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population,” Pritzker said at the news conference in Chicago. “Schools need a little more time for community infection rates to drop, for our youngest learners to become vaccine eligible and for more parents to get their kids vaccinated.”
Masks, testing and vaccines have worked to keep schools open, Pritzker said, and that was the primary goal of the administration.
But whether he has the authority to issue such mandates in schools will be a question decided by state courts. The 4th District Court of Appeals is currently considering whether a lower court’s temporary restraining order on the governor’s school mandates pertaining to about 170 school districts will remain in effect.
Pritzker called Judge Raylene Grischow’s opinion an “extremely bad decision,” as well as “poorly written” and “poorly decided.”
Without giving a timeline, Pritzker said “in the coming weeks” school mask mandates could be lifted if the state continues to see progress in terms of hospitalization and disease spread.
The reason the state was able to get to a place where Pritzker could consider lifting the mandate, he said, is because hospitalizations for COVID-19, which pushed heights of 7,400 cases in mid-January, have fallen by nearly two-thirds, to 2,496 cases as of Tuesday night. That marked a decrease of more than 140 from the day prior.
Twenty percent of statewide intensive care unit beds were available as of last week, up from a low of about 8 percent four weeks ago, Pritzker said.
It’s a faster decline in hospitalizations than at any point in the pandemic, Pritzker said.
Local reaction mixed
Clearing and Garfield Ridge residents contacted by the Clear-Ridge Reporter showed a range of reactions.
“All those businesses closed, kids hurt, lives destroyed and in the end all the mitigation mandates were ineffective,” said Felix Gonzalez. “Lots of people were silenced when they differed with the self-proclaimed experts. We gave up our freedom so easily. It’s really a shame.”
Maria Hernandez said she thinks it’s too soon to end the mask mandate.
“The numbers might be going down, but COVID-19 is still out there,” she said. “I’m a COVID survivor. I know first hand how it feels. I was in the hospital with COVID plus pneumonia. I had it for a month. My husband did, too. I thought I was going to die. It was a scary feeling and experience I’ll never forget. But through the grace of God and the power of prayer, my husband and I pulled through it. Now, I’m not saying live in fear. I’m just saying to please be careful. I know a lot of people are tired of wearing their masks. I am, too; but if I don’t want to catch COVID again, I’m going to continue to wear my mask.”
“In Illinois on Feb. 8, 103 people died of COVID-19,” Sue Basko observed.
“Rather safe than sorry for now,” added Alan Ziebarth. “With so many people unvaccinated, who knows if there will be a mutation that will be catastrophic? But I am a little hopeful.”
“My family and I will continue to wear our masks,” said Jackie Orozco-Baez. “It saved us from a lot of colds and flus, not just COVID-19.”
Others were skeptical about the governor’s motives.
“It’s an election year,” said Jim Smith. “Need I say more?”
“He’s running for re-election and sees which way the political winds are blowing,” Harry Galinski said.
“This isn’t just about masks,” Susan Wenta added. “[Pritzker] broke the law with his executive orders. There is a time limit on them.”
“If voters haven’t gotten a good picture of their elected officials from the past two years plandemic, then I pray these people do not cast a vote and continue to stay home,” Judy Ollry said.
“All these ridiculous vax and mask mandates should’ve been lifted the minute they found out that omicron was no worse than a cold,” Ed Ronczkowski said. “I should know. I had it and took Mucinex and was better in two days. Quit blanketing the population with mandates when everyone’s individual situation is different.”
David Krupa lifting mandates is “part of a nationwide tactic by Democrats to do damage control in the midterms. With the poll numbers as they stand, Republicans will sweep the midterm elections. But there is probably nothing they can do to stop it. People are fed up with the mandates, inflation and taxes.”
A ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said 89 percent of those hospitalizations are in unvaccinated individuals.
Approximately 75 percent of the state’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, putting Illinois at the top of Midwestern states.
Ezike said lifting the mandate does not signify an end to COVID-19, but the latest in the state’s effort to “coexist with COVID.”
“Your actions that you’ve already taken have helped to reduce the amount of virus circulating and it absolutely has saved lives,” she said. “But be clear that COVID is not gone and it won’t be gone on Feb. 28. So, we are going to continue to find ways to live with the virus.”
The path forward likely includes masks, vaccines, testing and creating safer settings through better ventilation, she said.
Local jurisdictions and businesses may continue to enforce stricter masking guidelines than outlined by the state.
Pritzker did not state specific metric thresholds would need to be met before school mask mandates could be lifted, but noted he hoped it would be “weeks rather than months” when a decision could be made. He deferred to Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago, when asked about specific metrics.
Landon said “metrics are really tough” when it comes to COVID-19 tracking. The CDC recommends an analysis of COVID-19 cases and positivity rates, but new at-home tests could change that calculus. For schools, which can serve as a breeding ground for the virus as community hubs, case rates, hospitalizations and other metrics should be watched, she said.
Flexibility is needed, she said earlier in the news conference.
“Many have asked for a metric or a number that will guide the rules and regulations,” she said. “But each wave of this pandemic has had different characteristics, different behavior, and no single metric has been able to reliably predict the outcomes and the trajectory of each of the variants.”
Ultimately, Pritzker said, his decisions will come down to the advice of doctors, epidemiologists and the CDC.
“People really do feel that the trajectory here is one that we’re going to be able to hold onto,” he said.
The announcement didn’t sit well with Republicans in the General Assembly who have criticized Pritzker’s “top-down” approach to the pandemic. House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, criticized the governor in a statement.
“Gov. Pritzker’s failure to have a clear plan in place for schools to give parents and children hope of returning to a normal life is astounding,” Durkin said in the statement. “It is year three of this pandemic, and continuing to leave these families in the dark, with no data or metrics presented, is unconscionable and a clear sign the governor should not be trusted to get us out of this pandemic.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
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