CHICAGO (CBS)--Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday said he plans to lift the state's indoor mask mandate for most places at the end of the month, citing plummeting infection and hospitalization rates in Illinois. But he said he would keep his mask mandate for Illinois schools in place for weeks longer than that.
"I think all of us are getting tired of wearing masks, that's for sure, but I have to say, I mean, an enormous compliment to the people of Illinois. We have done such a good job. You have done such a good job of keeping each other safe," Pritzker said Wednesday morning in Champaign.
Pritzker's plan for phasing out the mask mandate comes as the state's average daily COVID-19 case rate has fallen from a peak of 32,501 new cases per day on Jan. 12 to 6,141 new cases per day as of Wednesday, a dropoff of more than 80%.
The state's average seven-day infection rate peaked at 15.2% during the Omicron surge, and has now fallen to 4.9%.
Hospitalizations also have been reduced dramatically in recent weeks. After peaking at nearly 7,400 hospitalizations statewide on Jan. 12 to fewer than 2,500 as of Tuesday night, a reduction of nearly two-thirds.
Pritzker said, if the state's downward trend in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continues, he will lift the state's indoor mask mandate on Feb. 28; meaning masks would no longer be required at restaurants, bars, grocery stores, and other public gathering places. Still, Pritzker and Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said masks will still be highly recommended to limit the spread of COVID-19 and avoid another surge in cases.
Ezike said masks will still be required on public transportation, such as planes, trains and buses, under an order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state also will continue to follow CDC guidelines by requiring masks inside hospitals and other healthcare facilities; nursing homes and other long-term care facilities; daycare centers; and congregate settings, such as prisons, jails, and shelters.
The governor also noted that many local governments in Illinois, including the city of Chicago, have their own local mask mandates in place separate from his own executive order.
A spokesman for Mayor Lori Lightfoot's office said, if the city's own downward trends in COVID cases and hospitalizations also continue, the city should be able to lift its own mask mandate, and its proof of vaccination requirement for gyms, restaurants, bars, and other businesses that serve food or drinks on Feb. 28.
Also, individual businesses still have the right to require customers to wear masks or show proof of vaccination on their own, even after state and city officials lift those mandates.
Pritzker said the lifting of the state's indoor mask mandate "should not invite people not wearing masks to dissuade those who choose to wear masks."
"Remember that, whether we remove masks or not, COVID-19 has not gone away. There are so many Illinoisans who need to protect themselves from the virus more than others, and many more of us who will gladly put on our masks, not so much for ourselves, but for our elderly neighbor, for our immunocompromised aunt, for the toddlers for whom there is not yet a vaccine, for adults who are medically unable to be vaccinated, for the person in the room whose circumstance they do not know," Pritzker said at a briefing Wednesday afternoon at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago.
Pritzker also said he will keep in place a separate mask mandate for all K-12 schools in Illinois for weeks after the requirement is lifted in restaurants, bars, and other businesses. He said "schools need a little more time," for infection rates to drop, for kids under age 5 to become eligible for the vaccine, and for other children to get fully vaccinated before he lifts the mask mandate in schools.
"Schools are unlike most other environments. There are far lower vaccination rates for school-aged children than adults, higher exposure on a daily basis to younger children who are not yet vaccine eligible, and more difficulty maintaining distance in hallways and gyms and classrooms. The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population," he said.
The governor has not given a specific timeframe for when he might lift the school mask mandate, other than saying it will be a matter of weeks.
"I would like very much for it to be removed as soon as humanly possible, and I've told you that, and you've seen that we're making progress in that direction. But the truth is that we need to follow the advice of doctors, epidemiologists who understand this well, and nobody has wanted to wear masks all the way along," the governor said Wednesday afternoon. "I think that we need to listen to the scientists."
As for critics who claim Pritzker's decision to lift the mask mandate for most other places is politically motivated, as he prepares to run for re-election this year, the governor said "these are the same people that wanted us to take masks off, or encouraged people not to get vaccinated back when we had rising infections and rising hospitalizations, so it's hard to take them seriously at this point."
Meantime, he is appealing a Sangamon County judge's ruling issuing a temporary restraining order prohibiting the state from enforcing the school mask mandate at more than 140 school districts where parents and teachers have challenged his authority to impose such requirements.
"It was an extremely bad decision by this judge," Pritzker said. "It's poorly written, it's poorly decided, and so we've got to appeal that decision, because it takes away one of the tools that we have going forward."
The governor noted that it's possible there will be more COVID surges in the future, so even if schools might soon be able to lift mask mandates, they might be needed again down the line.
"That case decided in one circuit court downstate in Sangamon County by one judge shouldn't keep us from trying to keep the entire state safe," Pritzker said.
Fights continued at Illinois schools over COVID-19 mask rules Tuesday – the second school day after a downstate judge issued an order halting the statewide mask mandate.
At a rally outside an Algonquin District 300 school board meeting Tuesday, some parents wore their emotions on their signs - making it clear they are done with mask mandates inside the classroom.
Meantime, masks will be optional starting Thursday for Catholic schools in Lake County and most of suburban Cook County.
Greg Richmond, superintendent of schools for the Chicago Archdiocese, said, "we have determined that coronavirus cases in our communities and in our schools are now low enough to make masks optional in our schools."
Wednesday morning, there's another protest planned against wearing masks in the classroom after last week's court ruling.
Some students at Mundelein High School plan to speak up too because they want the option to not wear a mask.
Students received a text blast from their peers yesterday.
It says in part, "It is now our time to show Mundelein we are serious about this topic and are done wearing our masks. We ask that students who are serious about this topic, gather in front of the school. We will then walk in with no masks on."
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