If COVID metrics continue to decline, the state is expected to lift an indoor mask mandate in a matter of weeks, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said.
"If these trends continue — and we expect them to —then on Monday, Feb. 28, we will lift the indoor mask requirement for the State of Illinois," Pritzker said during a press conference Wednesday, noting that the state is currently "seeing the fastest rate of decline in our COVID-19 hospitalization metrics since the pandemic began."
There is, however, one important caveat.
"I want to be clear: Many local jurisdictions, businesses and organizations have their own mask requirements and other mitigations that must be respected," Pritzker said. "Having stricter mitigations than the state requirements is something that must be adhered to. Doing what’s right in your private business or for your local communities is encouraged. Whether you’re a business, a township, a venue, a place of worship or a city – to name just a few examples – protecting your patrons and visitors is no doubt a high priority. Masks continue to be a very effective way to keep your establishment from experiencing an outbreak or spreading the disease."
Masks will also still be required under certain federal guidelines.
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.
"While masks will no longer be required and most indoor locations beginning Monday, Feb. 28 I want to be clear that they are still highly recommended," she said.
According to the governor's office, Illinois will continue to require masks in the following settings:
- Healthcare Settings: Continue mask requirement
- Long Term Care Facilities: Continue mask requirement
- Congregate Settings (prisons, shelters, etc.): Continue mask requirement
- Transportation: Follow federal guidelines
- Daycare: Follow Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) guidelines
The lifting of the mandate will also not apply to schools, Pritzker said.
"School outbreaks impact hundreds, even thousands of people across a community – and there are a whole lot more infections when districts are maskless. Schools are unlike most other environments — there are far lower vaccination rates for school-aged children than adults, higher exposure daily to younger children who aren’t yet vaccine-eligible, and more difficulty maintaining distance in hallways and gyms. The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population. Schools need more time – for community infection rates to drop, for our youngest learners to become vaccine eligible, and for more parents to get their kids vaccinated."
The governor said plans for school masking requirements are expected to be announced "in the coming weeks."
"It’s my hope and expectation that we will continue making progress to a place where we can remove school masking requirements and keep kids in school," he said.
Both the governor and the state's top doctor stressed boosters as a way to increase protection from the virus and reduce risk.
Illinois is currently averaging about 2,500 COVID hospitalizations, marking a 66% drop from the nearly 7,300 seen during the peak of the omicron surge last month. The number of daily patients requiring ICU care has also dropped 63% in that time and 20% of state ICU beds are now available, marking an increase from the 8% reported four weeks earlier, the governor said.
At one point, the state was averaging more than 32,000 cases per day because of the omicron COVID variant. In less than a month, that number has plummeted to an average of 5,825 cases per day, a level not seen since the omicron surge began.
The governor said that hospitalization reductions would be key to removing the mandate.
The most recent development comes as Pritzker continues to fight a legal challenge to his mask mandate for Illinois schools. A temporary restraining order was issued last week by a judge in Sangamon County that prohibited certain school districts from enforcing the requirement.
Pritzker said that he planned to appeal the ruling, calling it “out of step with the vast majority of legal analysis.”