Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday declined to give a specific metric at which the state might impose another indoor masking mandate, leaving the door open for further mitigations but deferring to local authorities to take action, even as he called the current COVID-19 surge fueled by the delta variant a "very dangerous moment."
Earlier this month, Pritzker unveiled a new mask mandate specifically for schools, requiring - rather than recommending - that all students, teachers and staff in K-12 schools wear masks while indoors, effective immediately.
The Illinois State Board of Education later placed several schools and districts across the state on probation or changed their status with the state to "nonrecognized" for not adhering to the mandate.
When asked about that action at an unrelated news conference Friday, Pritzker said schools not following the requirement are endangering students and their communities at "a very dangerous moment."
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"What I can tell you is that those schools that are not following the mask requirements for their children are, of course, endangering their children, they're also endangering the people who work in the school, the parents and grandparents who pick up and drop off their children at school," Pritzker said.
"We are living in a very dangerous moment of coronavirus, an upswing of the delta variant across the nation and here in Illinois," he continued. "I am deeply concerned especially that the delta variant is having an increasingly serious medical impact on younger people, not just young children who attend school, but older kids in high school and the young teachers who come to work at schools every day and so we're trying simply to ask people to make sure that people are following a mitigation that we know works."
But when he was asked about his stance on another statewide mask mandate, on the same day a new Chicago order requiring masks in all public indoor spaces took effect, Pritzker demurred.
"Well as you know, I've not been reticent to act when I think it's appropriate to do so on mitigations. And we're always considering every day what next we need to do," he said.
"I applaud the city of Chicago in taking proactive efforts here. I encourage other local governments, whether they be cities or townships or counties to also take proactive steps and we will look at the state level, whether that's an appropriate thing at some moment," he continued, adding that he looks at the state's metrics and talks to the state's top health official every day.
Chicago unveiled the new mask mandate on Tuesday, one day after Chicago surpassed the metric of 400 average new cases of COVID-19 diagnosed per day - roughly 12 times the low of 34 that the city saw in late June before cases began to rise again.
Chicago, Cook County, and all 101 other counties in Illinois are seeing "high" levels of transmission of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which updated its guidance late last month to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks in indoor settings again in areas of the U.S. that are seeing "substantial" or "high" transmission - a reversal from its previous guidance.
If a county has reported 50 to 100 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period or has a positivity rate of 8% to 10%, it falls into the "substantial transmission" tier, while those reporting 100 cases or more per 100,000 or have a positivity rate of at least 10% are labeled as "high transmission."
The Illinois Department of Public Health said last month that it was "fully adopting" the CDC's updated guidance, and while federal health officials now recommend everyone in Illinois resume mask-wearing indoors, Pritzker said he would take action if the state's metrics increase in an "exponential fashion."
Pritzker - who is on the ballot next year, seeking a second term - also said when asked that his choice not to impose a statewide mask mandate was not political.
"This is not political. This is every day. As you know, listen, if it was political, we wouldn't have any mitigations, It would be much easier not to have mitigations," he said. "The truth of the matter is that I have acted every time I have believed and the doctors have advised me that we need to put mitigations in place, we have done it. And so I'm not reticent to do that."
"We know now that we have vaccines available and masks work. People should follow the science. If you wear a mask, and you get vaccinated, you're pretty safe," Pritzker continued. "And I hope that everybody will do that and I will take action if we see that the numbers move up in an exponential fashion, which they're not there, but in an exponential fashion, that's something that we'll look very closely at."
Pritzker also said that he is looking at the metrics every day statewide, by region and at a local level by county and city.
"We're trying to advise in local areas, what kinds of mitigations they may want to consider in that local area that may be different than some other area," Pritzker said. "So all of this has been taken into consideration. We have all the tools, the menu that you've seen us exercise over the last year-and-a-half of things that we know that work, and so we'll continue to follow that."
He added that it's "always been the case" throughout the pandemic that local authorities within the state of Illinois can choose to impose more stringent mitigations.
"And there have been moments throughout the last year and a half that you've seen not just the city of Chicago, but other places that have taken proactive actions that they believe would work in their communities," he said. "So I encourage those local community leaders to do so, indeed, I have celebrated those people throughout the last year-and-a-half because very few, frankly, local leaders, very few elected leaders have been willing to stand up and make tough decisions for their communities. I mean it's about time for some of them but I want to congratulate folks who actually already do that."