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What to Know as Chicago and Illinois Lift Mask Mandates, CDC Weighs Changes

NBC Chicago logo NBC Chicago 2/24/2022
a group of people wearing costumes: CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – MARCH 10: Residents wait in line to be vaccinated at a mass COVID-19 vaccination center set up in a parking lot outside of the United Center, home to the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks, on March 10, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The site, which opened at full capacity today, expects to vaccinate 6,000 residents-per-day. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) © Getty Images

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – MARCH 10: Residents wait in line to be vaccinated at a mass COVID-19 vaccination center set up in a parking lot outside of the United Center, home to the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks, on March 10, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. The site, which opened at full capacity today, expects to vaccinate 6,000 residents-per-day. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With Chicago, Cook County and the rest of Illinois preparing to lift mandates starting next week, what should you know about the changing guidelines?

With COVID cases and hospitalizations still in decline in the city of Chicago and across Illinois, officials have said that several mitigations in place during the omicron surge will end later this month.

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One of those mitigations is the requirement to wear facial coverings in indoor spaces.

Masks will still be required in certain places, but with federal guidelines potentially changing, what exactly should you know in the lead-up to next week?

Here's a breakdown.

What is changing in Illinois and when?

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the state expects its mask mandate will be lifted at the end of the month, with the exception of schools, a policy that is now at the center of a legal battle.

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."

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.

The full list of locations includes:

As for schools, the governor is currently planning to take his appeal of a recent ruling by a downstate judge and a subsequent ruling from an appellate court to the Illinois Supreme Court.

What about Cook County and Chicago?

The city’s rollback of COVID mitigations is now in step with the rest of Illinois, which plans to remove its mask mandate on Feb. 28.

Health officials in suburban Cook County also said they will drop their mask mandate and their proof-of-vaccination requirement at the end of the month.

Businesses will be allowed to drop requiring masks indoors starting on that date, but the city and county will have similar caveats to the state.

Both the city and the state have said that there will be select areas where masks will continue to be required at this time.

That list includes:

  • Health-care Settings
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Congregant living facilities
  • Public transportation
  • Airports

All of those decisions were based on guidance and requirements put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to officials.

While the city will roll back its mask mandates in coming days, Chicago Public Schools says 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.

“We have made great progress in recent weeks against this virus, and we do not want to jeopardize that progress by moving too quickly,” a spokesperson said. “We look forward to the day when we can be mask-optional at CPS, but we still need to get more students vaccinated across our district, and we still need to work with our public health and labor partners on the best way to preserve a safe in-person learning environment for all.”

The other mitigation that will roll back on Feb. 28 is the requirement to show proof of COVID vaccination at indoor establishments where masks are routinely removed to eat or drink. That requirement, put into place during the height of the omicron surge in January, will also be phased out at the end of the month, according to officials.

Mayor Lightfoot said city employees will still be required to get COVID vaccinations, however.

“We’re not about to change that one bit,” she said. “The rules were very clear. We announced this in August, and we gave ample opportunities. If you’re a city of Chicago employee, you need to be vaccinated.”

What does the CDC say?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing last week that the government is contemplating a change to its mask guidance in the coming weeks. Noting recent declines in COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths, she acknowledged “people are so eager” for health officials to ease masking rules and other measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“We all share the same goal – to get to a point where COVID-19 is no longer disrupting our daily lives, a time when it won’t be a constant crisis – rather something we can prevent, protect against, and treat," Walensky said.

Though nothing has been finalized yet, NBC News, citing two people familiar with the situation, reported the CDC is considering a new benchmark for whether masks are needed, basing it on the level of severe disease and hospitalizations in a given community.

What's next?

Chicago officials have cautioned that the mitigations could return if a new strain of COVID causes numbers to once again move in the wrong direction, but with hospitalizations at their lowest level since before the delta surge in Aug. 2021, officials have expressed confidence that now is the time to remove those rules.

The one vaccine-related rule that will not be removed, at least according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, is the mandate that city workers get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“If you’re an employee of the city of Chicago, you need to be vaccinated,” Lightfoot said. “We’re not worried about changing that. Not one bit. The rules were very clear. We announced them in August, and we gave ample opportunity (to get shots).”

Lightfoot said that such requirements are especially critical for first responders like EMT’s, police officers and firefighters.

“People calling are assuming that the people who are coming in are…exercising the utmost safety themselves and not putting other people who are calling for assistance at risk,” she said.

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