Chicago has announced changes to its reopening plan as the city faces "worrying increases" in COVID health metrics and aims to prevent "a third surge of the virus in Chicago."
The city said it plans to keep most of its indoor restrictions in place, but outdoor capacity limits will increase at some establishments.
"Obviously, you know, we are all wanting to be moving ahead with reopening as it is safe. Right now, with these numbers, you know, this week is not the time to be expanding capacity, particularly in indoor settings, but we are making some moves in outdoor settings, recognizing that in outdoor settings where people, where the ventilation is naturally very good, as long as people are doing the masking and doing the social distancing," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Thursday.
According to the new guidelines, the updated capacity limits, which take effect immediately, include:
- Bars and Restaurants: Maximum outdoor table size can increase to ten people, with tables set up so that patrons are six feet from patrons at other tables
- Social Events (e.g. weddings, potlucks and other community events): Total outdoor capacity can increase to the lesser of 50% or 100 people
- Performance Venues, Theaters and Seated Spectator Events: Outdoor venues with capacity greater than or equal to 200 can operate at 25% capacity. Smaller venues can operate at no more than 50% capacity or 50 people.
- Outdoor Recreation: Maximum groups of 50; multiple groups permitted
- Places of Worship: No outdoor capacity limit provided that six feet of social distancing is maintained between parties
- Health and Fitness Centers: Outdoor classes can increase to 100 people
Still, the guidelines maintain there must be 6 feet of social distancing between parties and face coverings can only be removed "in limited circumstances."
And unlike under state guidelines, all people will continue to count towards capacity limits, even if they are fully vaccinated or have a recent negative test, the city said.
"While the State announced a loosening of restrictions last week, due to this concerning increase in the health metrics, most of Chicago’s indoor regulations will remain in place for now," the health department said. "CDPH will evaluate the metrics again in one week to determine if and how Chicago could loosen regulations and move to a 'Bridge to Phase 5.'"
Illinois unveiled a so-called Bridge Phase last week, announcing new metrics and guidelines that will allow for higher capacity limits at places like museums, zoos and spectator events as well as increased business operations during a transitional period between the current Phase 4 and before a full reopening in Phase 5. In order to reach the Bridge Phase, 70% of residents 65 and older statewide must have received their first dose of the vaccine, with no increase in COVID-19 metrics like hospital admissions and more.
According to the city, daily COVID cases are now at a "high-risk" level, with a 10% increase reported over at least five consecutive days. Emergency department visits for COVID-like illnesses have also increased by 38% in the last week.
The positivity rate also climbed to 3.4% Thursday, remaining in the low-risk category and far below the 30% high seen at the height of the pandemic, but marking an increase from a recent low of 2.7%.
The city was averaging 365 new coronavirus cases per day, a number that nears the 400 per day threshold that health officials have said marks "a problem."
The latest metrics include:
- COVID cases diagnosed per day: currently averaging 365, in the “High-Risk” level and up 23% in the last week
- COVID test positivity: currently averaging 3.4%, in the “Lower-Risk” level and up 18% in the last week
- Emergency Department visits for COVID-like illness: currently averaging 73 per day, in the “Moderate-Risk” level and up 38% in the last week
- ICU beds occupied by COVID patients: currently averaging 73, in the “Lower-Risk” level and up 3% in the last week
According to Arwady, it appears one particular age group is seeing the largest increase in cases in recent days, a concerning trend reminiscent of last fall's surge.
"So the biggest thing driving this is increases in cases in our younger adults, and I want to highlight that," Arwady said during a press conference Tuesday. "Unfortunately, these sorts of increases are just what we were seeing in October as we were starting to see the beginnings of what became our huge surge. It was really the same case rates and younger adults that started this."
Of the more than 6,700 cases reported so far this month, more than 4,300 were in residents between the ages of 18 and 49, city data showed.
"It's been 18- to 29-year-olds, 30- to 39-year-olds, 40- to 49-year-olds at every point here in the outbreaks that have been the most predictive of seeing significant increases in cases," she said. "And so most of those folks have not been able to get a vaccine yet and I want to remind people, all people, but especially folks in those younger age groups who haven't been able to get a vaccine that we really need everybody to not stop doing the things that got us this far."
Emerging variants of the coronavirus, believed to be more contagious, are also spreading across the city.
"We're seeing COVID variants spread in Chicago, and we are not testing every person who gets COVID for those variants, but we absolutely are seeing again that B.117 variant that first emerged in the U.K., that they're seeing a lot of in Michigan," she said. "We are also seeing more cases of it here in Chicago and we have seen some spread."
The increase, however, isn't unique to Chicago.
"They're actually worse in suburban Cook and the northeast, you know, the state overall," Arwady said. "Not an emergency yet, but these are... this is why we monitor these things and when we see signs of concern like this, it's a moment to watch and see what happens."
Her comments were echoed in part by Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who said Tuesday that the state is "seeing some concerning plateaus and even increases in hospitalizations and cases."
“Even as we’re getting more and more vaccine doses, we cannot let our guard down, especially with these virulent new strains circulating,” Ezike said in a statement. “We’ve come so far and are so close to a more normal time, but we’re already seeing some concerning plateaus and even increases in hospitalizations and cases. We’re not out of the woods yet so continue to wear your masks, avoid large crowds, and keep six feet of distance.”
Health officials in Illinois on Wednesday reported 2,793 new coronavirus cases and 20 additional deaths, along with more than 107,000 vaccinations in the past 24 hours.
"I've been to this movie before and seen, you know, the rising positivity rates," Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday. "And I'm concerned about it and I've been saying all along, even as we have addressed the mitigations and tried to lower mitigations here or there, I've said we got to be careful about the variants. And I am concerned, I must tell you, you know, as I see numbers go up, is that the variants or is it a blip in the data? You know, what is it exactly? So we'll keep watching very closely, but I can tell you there is more activity going on and I think people maybe are being a little less careful, and I want to remind everybody please keep your distance, please continue to wear your mask, please be respectful of others."
Arwady said that while the city continues to make progress in vaccinating residents, she's particularly concerned about the short-term impacts of a surge, but remains optimistic for longer-term projections.
"I remain really confident that this summer, assuming we continue to see really good vaccine demand and really good uptake as vaccine supply increases, we'll be in good shape this summer, but I am really worried about this next sort of four to eight weeks," she said.