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Gov. Pritzker Gives No Specific Metrics For Removing COVID-19 Mask Mandate, But Says It Will Depend On Hospitalizations

CHICAGO (CBS) -- While denouncing a downstate judge's ruling that halted his mask mandate for schools, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said Monday that he hopes to have further guidance in the days to come on when COVID-19 mask requirements for indoor public settings can be lifted.

Pritzker addressed the issue at two different unrelated news conferences Monday. He did not say what specific metrics would prompt him to remove the state's indoor mask mandate or other mitigations, other than "hospitalizations, hospitalizations, hospitalizations."

"I've been saying that for quite some time now," Pritzker said. "As you know we reached an all-time high in hospitalizations at around 7,400."

Pritzker emphasized that the purpose of mask mandates and other public health measures is to keep people safe and healthy.

"For millions of Illinoisans, wearing masks has never been about what was required by the governor or any other authority. No. Masks – for most people anyway – have been about doing what's right, for yourself, for your loved ones, for others, for your community as a whole," he said. "Nowhere is that more true than in schools – community hubs where grandparents, parents, teachers, and staff interact with each other every day."

While a mask requirement has been in place constantly since shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in settings such as public transportation and airplanes, Pritzker did note that the mask mandate was briefly lifted back in the summer of last year.

"Masks reduce transmission – especially, I think all of you experienced Omicron was spreading like wildfire, and being able to keep our masks on, and put our masks on as we did back last fall – remember, we didn't have masks on during the summer; I don't know if you remember, because it seems like an awful long time ago – but things got so good at the end of the spring in terms of the low transmission rates that we took our masks off," the governor said. "We had at least six, eight weeks there when nothing bad was happening with any of the variants. But thank goodness the people of Illinois put their masks back on at the right time, and that kept us from having the problems that many other states around us and other states in the country had. So I'm very proud of where we've landed here."

Pritzker said just as he was forced to reinstate the mask mandate after during the Delta-fueled surge last summer after dropping it in June, it's possible such a thing could be needed again this time around.

"Even when, if we remove the requirement that people wear masks in various settings, there may come a time in the future when we would want people to put their masks back on," he said.

Still, Pritzker indicated that neither he nor anyone else is looking to make the mask mandate permanent.

"Across the state, the nation, and the world, the evidence is there – whether or not you want to look at it. In the moment that we're in right now, masks are a proven tool – not a new feature of life – but a tool to get us through this time," he said at a news conference with Illinois State Police about expressway shootings.

Pritzker also addressed that issue at a subsequent news conference on freezing the gas tax.

"I think we all want to be able to remove masks when we're indoors as soon as possible. I am first among them. But it's also our job to keep everybody healthy and make sure we're doing the right thing. I think in many situations – certainly, when you're outdoors; when you're at your own home with people that you spend your time with – people don't need to wear masks," the governor said. "But as long as there is significant transmission, it's important that people gathering together indoors do wear masks."

Pritzker said he will continue to consult with the state's Public Health Department and other experts before making any decisions about lifting or changing the state's mask mandates.

"I would say as hospitalizations are falling – and they are falling significantly right now – I've been consulting with IDPH, with Dr. (Ngozi) Ezike, and with the epidemiologists across the state of Illinois, to try to determine exactly when and how we can remove masks," he said.

Pritzker noted that some states are already seeing drops in COVID-19 cases steep enough to drop their school mask mandates. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday the state's school mask mandate will be lifted on March 7, and in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont announced on Monday afternoon he's recommending to end the state mask mandate on Feb. 28, CBS New York reported.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul said she will make an announcement on Wednesday regarding the state's indoor mask mandate, which is set to expire Thursday.

Meanwhile, Delaware Gov. John Carney announced Monday the state's universal indoor mask mandate will be lifted Friday at 11 a.m. local time, CBS Philadelphia reported.

Oregon will also drop its indoor mask requirement by March 31.

"We've already seen northeastern states where Omicron hit first, like New Jersey, see the signs that they need to lift these protocols – namely decreased hospitalizations," Pritzker said. "As Dr. Ezike cautiously noted for a few weeks from now, our COVID rates are also moving in the right direction. And as I said last week, I hope to provide some additional guidance in the coming days as we continue to evaluate the numbers. As we've been doing from the start, we are following the science."

Last week, a downstate Sangamon County judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the school mask mandate at more than 140 districts, but Pritzker and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul are appealing that ruling, and asking a state appeals court to overturn the temporary restraining order.

Some Illinois schools were sent scrambling this weekend after the judge's ruling.

Many school districts across the state have been struggling to figure out whether they need to keep mask mandates in place in light of the ruling, which covers more than 140 districts named as defendants in a string of lawsuits against the state's school mask mandate. Many districts are continuing to require masks for students, teachers and staff, while others are now making masks optional.

Some districts canceled classes on Monday, hoping to get clarity on the court ruling later this week, while other districts have moved to remote learning. And District 34 in Glenview is requiring masks for everyone except the individual plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.

Pritzker said the judge's ruling has led to confusion about whether or not districts not named as defendants in the case are covered by the temporary restraining order. The governor recommended that schools not named as a defendant in the lawsuit should continue to follow the mask mandate and other COVID-19 protocols.

"Poor legal reasoning should not take one of our most effective tools off the table," Pritzker said. "The judge has created a tremendous amount of confusion, even in the way she wrote her decision, so that has been problematic."

Pritzker also said school districts that have reached COVID-19 safety agreements with teachers unions, such as the Chicago Public Schools, also should continue to follow the terms of those agreements.

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