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What to Know About Chicago, Illinois Mask Mandates Ahead of CDC's Significant Changes

NBC Chicago logo NBC Chicago 2/25/2022
a close up of a person wearing a costume: File photo. © Getty Images

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Both Illinois and Chicago are heading into their final weekend of COVID mandates before the restrictions are largely lifted Monday, but with additional changes expected to be announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Friday, the guidelines could be changing even further.

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Here's what we know so far:

When will the mask mandate be lifted in Illinois?

Gov. J.B. Pritzker plans to lift Illinois' indoor mask mandate, with the exception of in schools, by Feb. 28 if state COVID metrics continue to decline.

Noting that the state is "seeing the fastest rate of decline in our COVID-19 hospitalization metrics since the pandemic began," Pritzker said if trends continue as expected, "then on Monday, Feb. 28, we will lift the indoor mask requirement for the State of Illinois."

What still needs to happen for the mask mandate to be lifted?

The governor noted that metrics must continue to decline in the weeks leading up to Feb. 28.

As of Friday, coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been on a generally downward trend, based on data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

What about Chicago?

In line with the state of Illinois, Chicago will lift its indoor mask mandate early next week in certain public locations, as long as coronavirus metrics continue on a downward trend, officials announced.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a press conference that the mask mandate, as well as the city's vaccine requirement, will end Feb. 28 at a number of spots across the city, citing a drop in key COVID metrics.

In Chicago, masks will continue to be required in health care settings, on public transit and in other congregate settings, per federal mandates and guidance from the CDC, but with a big announcement from the CDC in store, it remains unclear if the city's guidance will soon change.

Are there still locations that will require masks?

There is one important caveat to the state's and city's plans.

"I want to be clear: Many local jurisdictions, businesses and organizations have their own mask requirements and other mitigations that must be respected," Pritzker said. "Having stricter mitigations than the state requirements is something that must be adhered to. Doing what’s right in your private business or for your local communities is encouraged. Whether you’re a business, a township, a venue, a place of worship or a city – to name just a few examples – protecting your patrons and visitors is no doubt a high priority. Masks continue to be a very effective way to keep your establishment from experiencing an outbreak or spreading the disease."

Masks will also still be required under certain federal guidelines.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike reminded residents that masks remain necessary in certain places and situations, including for public transportation, inside federal buildings and in parts of long-term care facilities.

"While masks will no longer be required and most indoor locations beginning Monday, Feb. 28 I want to be clear that they are still highly recommended," she said.

According to the governor's office, Illinois will continue to require masks in the following settings:

What about schools?

Earlier this month, an Illinois appellate court rejected Pritzker’s appeal of a lower court's ruling against a mask mandate in schools, writing the request is “moot” because the governor’s emergency COVID rules already expired.

In their decision, the appellate court justices wrote there is no “actual controversy” to decide.

“Because the emergency rules voided by the TRO are no longer in effect, a controversy regarding the application of those rules no longer exists. Thus, the matter is moot,” the justices wrote.

The justices also wrote, “We note the language of the TRO in no way restrains school districts from acting independently from the executive orders or the IDPH in creating provisions addressing COVID-19.”

The court's ruling means that the decision of whether or not to require masks and implement individual COVID requirements is up to individual school districts.

The lifting of the mandate will also not apply to schools, Pritzker said.

"School outbreaks impact hundreds, even thousands of people across a community – and there are a whole lot more infections when districts are maskless. Schools are unlike most other environments — there are far lower vaccination rates for school-aged children than adults, higher exposure daily to younger children who aren’t yet vaccine-eligible, and more difficulty maintaining distance in hallways and gyms. The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population. Schools need 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."

Following the court decision, Chicago Public Schools said that it will keep its requirements in place for at least the time-being.

According to a statement from CPS, the requirements are being kept in place to help “preserve in-person teaching,” and to keep students and educators safe.

Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that all of its schools that were still under a mask mandate will instead switch to a mask-optional set of mitigations beginning on Monday.

According to a letter to parents, the Archdiocese says that its schools in Chicago, Evanston and Oak Park will be mask-optional for teachers and students beginning on Feb. 28, the same day that the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago will remove their mask mandates in indoor spaces.

How could the CDC guidance change things?

The Biden administration will significantly loosen federal mask-wearing guidelines to protect against COVID-19 transmission on Friday, according to two people familiar with the matter, meaning most Americans will no longer be advised to wear masks in indoor public settings.

The CDC on Friday will announce a change to the metrics it uses to determine whether to recommend face coverings, shifting from looking at COVID-19 case counts to a more holistic view of risk from the coronavirus to a community. Under current guidelines, masks are recommended for people residing in communities of substantial or high transmission — roughly 95% of U.S. counties, according to the latest data.

The new metrics will still consider caseloads, but also take into account hospitalizations and local hospital capacity, which have been markedly improved during the emergence of the omicron variant. That strain is highly transmissible, but indications are that it is less severe than earlier strains, particularly for people who are fully vaccinated and boosted. Under the new guidelines, the vast majority of Americans will no longer live in areas where indoor masking in public is recommended, based on current data.

The new policy comes as the Biden administration moves to shift its focus to preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19, rather than all instances of infection, as part of a strategy adjustment for a new “phase" in the response as the virus becomes endemic.

The two people familiar with the change spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the CDC's action before the announcement.

It was not immediately clear how the new CDC guidance would affect U.S. federal mandates requiring face coverings on public transportation.

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