Even as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced new metrics and guidelines aimed at transitioning the state to a full reopening, he made it clear that face mask requirements will remain in place.
"Illinois will lift its face covering requirement when the CDC recommends it," Pritzker said Thursday, crediting public masking as a primary reason why the state can afford to look ahead to a new reopening phase. "Masks have been one of our best ways to reduce risk in this pandemic, and we won’t be so foolish as to throw away our best weapon heading into the last lap of the fight."
State masking mandates were put into place by Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health on May 1, 2020.
IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike on Thursday echoed Pritzker, urging the state not to lose its momentum in the fight against coronavirus and noting "we absolutely will not have any mask-burning parties."
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"We in Illinois know the importance of masks," Ezike said. "We know that we still need to avoid crowds ... and keep our distance."
Ezike noted the state's daily coronavirus case rate has dropped from an all-time high of 95 cases for every 100,000 people in November to the current 12 cases for every 100,000 people.
Ezike called coron avirushospitalizations "the lowest we've seen since we started tracking these numbers."
"So don’t let up," Pritzker said. Join me in wearing your mask, and getting vaccinated when it’s your turn. Step by step, we can get out of this the same we came into it – together."
Pritzker on Thursday unveiled what he called a "Bridge Phase" that would allow for higher capacity limits prior to entering Phase 5.
The new phase allows for higher capacity limits at places like museums, zoos and spectator events as well as increased business operations, the state announced, but masks will continue to be mandated.
The updated guidelines bridge the gap between Phase 4, which the state is currently in, and Phase 5, which would mark a complete reopening and requires a widely available vaccine or highly effective treatment.
According to the governor, the so-called Bridge Phase "will serve as a transition period with higher capacity limits and increased business operations, without prematurely embracing a reckless reopening before the majority of Illinoisans have been vaccinated."
Unlike previous mitigations and phases, all of Illinois will move through the Bridge Phase and Phase 5 together, once they meet the required metrics.
In order for Illinois to advance to the Bridge Phase, the entire state must reach a 70% first-dose vaccination rate for residents 65 and older, in addition to maintain the current required metrics of at least 20% ICU beds availability and holding steady on hospitalizations for COVID-19 or COVID-like illnesses, mortality rates and case rates over a 28-day monitoring period.
To move to Phase 5, the state must reach a 50% vaccination rate for residents age 16 and over and meet the same metrics and rates required to enter the transition phase, over an additional 28-day period, state officials said.
“COVID-19 has not gone away, but the light we can see at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter and brighter as more people get vaccinated,” Pritzker said in a statement. “It’s time to begin to cautiously move toward normalcy, and it’s imperative that we do so in a way that maintains all the progress we’ve made to date."
The state could be forced to revert back to an earlier phase if, over the course of 10 days, the state experiences an increasing trend in COVID-19 and COVID-like illness hospital admissions, a decrease in ICU bed availability, an increase in the mortality rate, and an increasing case rate, the state said.