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Chicago, Cook County To Lift Mask And Vaccine Mandates On Feb. 28, But Masks Will Remain For CPS; 'We're Seeing Ourselves On The Downward Slope Of This Omicron Surge'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Citing a "dramatic swing" in COVID-19 cases, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Tuesday the city would lift its indoor mask mandate and proof of vaccination mandate for businesses on Feb. 28, the same day the statewide indoor mask mandate is set to go away. Cook County officials later announced they also would do away with their own mask and vaccine card mandates on Feb. 28.

That will mean, starting Monday, Chicago and suburban Cook County will no longer require people to wear masks in indoor public settings, or to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to enter gyms, restaurants, bars, or other businesses that serve food. However, individual businesses will still have the option of requiring masks or proof of vaccination on their own.

"That is their right, and we must respect it, Lightfoot said.

Hours after Lightfoot announced the city was lifting its mask and proof of vaccination mandates effective Monday, the Cook County Department of Public Health announced it was doing the same.

Lightfoot thanked Chicago business owners for following the city's mandates during the Omicron surge to help limit the spread of the virus, acknowledging the mandates were difficult to enforce. Masks had been required at all indoor businesses in Chicago since Aug. 20, 2021, and the vaccine mandate for gyms, restaurants, bars, and other food establishments had been in effect since Jan. 3.

"Thanks to your compliance, we were able to keep people safe, bump up our vaccination rates, and keep our economy open," she said.

Meantime, masks will still be required on public transit, in hospitals and other health care centers, and in nursing homes and other congregate settings, such as prisons and jails, under federal requirements.

The decision to lift the indoor mask mandate and proof of vaccination requirement in Chicago and suburban Cook County on Feb. 28 comes after Gov. JB Pritzker earlier this month announced he would be lifting the statewide indoor mask mandate on the same day.

However, the reversal of the mask mandate will not apply in the Chicago Public Schools. Students, teachers, and staff are still required to wear masks indoors as part of a COVID-19 safety agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union. Under terms of the district's COVID-19 safety agreement with CTU, masks will be required in schools through Aug. 26.

CPS late Tuesday said its mask mandate will remain in place.

"Chicago Public Schools will keep in place all proven COVID-19 safety mitigation measures, including requiring universal masking by all staff and students," the district said in a statement. "Thanks to these key safety measures, CPS has been able to preserve in-person teaching and learning and provide a safe environment for students and staff."

"We have made great progress in recent weeks against this virus, and we do not want to jeopardize that progress by moving too quickly. 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 Chicago Teachers Union was supportive of CPS' decision saying: "Masks remain critical part of COVID mitigation. We're glad that CPS will continue to honor the safety agreement that our members sacrificed four days of pay last month."

As CBS 2's Marissa Parra reported, a group of parents who plan to speak at a CPS board meeting Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. are asking for a drawdown of COVID protocol for students.

The League of Chicago Theaters, which includes Broadway in Chicago, will also continue to require masks and proof of vaccine for all performances.

Mayor Lightfoot also said she herself will still mask in public — for now.

But the mayor said the city is able to lift the mask and vaccine mandates for businesses thanks to the ongoing decline in COVID-19 cases in Chicago.

"Currently, our metrics continue to trend in the right direction," Lightfoot said at a City Hall press conference announcing the changes to the city's COVID-19 mitigation efforts. "We're seeing ourselves on the downward slope of this Omicron surge."

Chicago's COVID-19 metrics have plummeted over the several weeks, after the Omicron surge hit its peak in early January. The city's average daily case rate stands at 283, down 96% from a peak of 6,293 on Jan. 3. Hospitalizations also are down sharply from early January, standing at 27 per day from a peak of 241 per day on Jan. 6. The city's case positivity rate is down to 2.0%, from a peak of 20.3% on Jan. 1.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city has reached a point where, at a gathering of 50 people, there's only about a one in five chance that someone in the group is positive for COVID-19.

However, Arwady said it's still important for people who haven't yet been vaccinated against COVID-19 to get their shots. As of Tuesday, approximately 69% of the city's eligible population has been fully vaccinated, and 76.5% of those eligible have had at least one dose of the vaccine.

Meanwhile, the new BA.2 subvariant of Omicron has been detected in Chicago, but Dr. Arwady said it is in very small numbers.

The mayor and Arwady also warned that either or both of the mandates might need to be reinstated if there's another surge of COVID-19 cases in the future. However, they did not provide specific metrics that would prompt the city to reinstate those requirements.

Arwady noted that a new variant of the virus has emerged approximately every three months.

"Would we be lucky enough to not see another variant emerge? It's possible, but I think it would be foolish to say we would never expect to see another variant. The vaccines look great, and there's some new science out suggesting that they remain protective. I don't think we're going to be doing a fourth dose, and anything like that, for months, if even ever. So I certainly am feeling way more confident than I have at any other point previously, knowing that the vaccines work as well as they do. Even when they're not a perfect match for Omicron, they should continue to protect against future variants, but I can't fully predict the future," Arwady said.

Lightfoot also said, while the city is lifting its indoor mask mandate and proof of vaccination requirement next week, she is not budging on her requirement for all city employees to get vaccinated.

"We will not change that one bit. The rules have been very clear. We announced them in August. We gave ample opportunity. If you're a city of Chicago employee, you need to be vaccinated," she said.

All city employees are required to be fully vaccinated, or face the prospect of being put on unpaid leave, or fired. The city originally gave employees until Dec. 31 to get fully vaccinated, but after going through arbitration with labor unions for most city employees, that deadline was moved to Jan. 31. The city is still awaiting an arbitrator's ruling on the vaccine mandate for police officers.

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