Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he's hopeful mask mandates will be lifted in time for the upcoming holidays, noting more people will likely plan to gather over the next couple months to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Speaking to reporters after delivering a COVID-19 update Tuesday encouraging booster shots for eligible Illinoisans, Pritzker said state health officials are "continuing again to watch the numbers" daily to "determine when the right time is," though he added that the time is not now.
"I know pretty much every moment of every day you've wanted us to remove every single mitigation," he said. "Every question that you give is a question about removing mitigations. I want them to go away too, but we want to make sure that we're keeping people healthy and safe following the guidelines that doctors are offering for us. And so we'll continue to do that and obviously we want to remove the mitigations as we approach the holidays. These are, you know, that's an important marker for us."
Pritzker urged caution among residents, saying that continued declines in metrics would be required for the state to lift its mask mandate.
"We want to make sure these numbers keep going down. We'd like very much to head into, you know, we have three holidays coming up, but especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, where people spend extended amounts of time together, so we'd like very much to get to a place where we can remove certain mask mandates," he said.
Chicago's top doctor agreed that mask mandates are likely here to stay for at least the coming weeks, though she urged even more caution heading into the holiday season.
"We remain in a substantial transmission standpoint from the CDC, and even if we continue to see progress at the rate we've been seeing it, I expect that would take probably at least another couple of weeks," Arwady told reporters over the weekend. "My big question is what's happening between now and Thanksgiving, honestly."
Arwady said masking will remain even more important during the colder months.
"That's when we usually start to see respiratory viruses like flu really take off and we'll have a better sense," Arwady said. "My concern is I don't want to say hooray, let's take the mask off, two weeks later we have to put them back on."
Last week, Pritzker said it remains too early to give an indication of when he might lift Illinois' indoor mask requirement, even as state COVID-19 metrics continue to dip.
Though the state's test positivity rate was down to 2.5% at the time, Pritzker said health officials must consider all metrics, in addition to other factors.
Pritzker cited rising cases in other states, including nearby Minnesota and Michigan, as well as current hospitalizations here in Illinois, where 1,500 people are in the hospital with coronavirus.
"If you go look at the hospitalizations -- the new hospitalizations, as well as the ones that are, you know, existing in total -- they are not dropping at the rate that they were dropping even a couple of weeks ago," Pritzker said Thursday at an unrelated news conference while answering reporter questions. "So I'm concerned about that."
Still, Pritzker said he is optimistic.
"Generally speaking, things are better than they were a couple of weeks ago," Pritzker said. "So I'm hopeful."
The governor did not mention a potential timeline for more info on when Illinois' indoor mask mandate might be lifted.
Earlier this month Pritzker said the state's coronavirus metrics must be on a "good downward trajectory" before he'll decide whether to rescind the mask mandate that was reinstated in late August due to a rapid rise in cases.
Addressing reporters at the time, Pritzker pointed to progress in the declining number of new hospitalizations, but said the number of existing patients hospitalized with COVID-19 remains steady.
"I would remind you that for example in Minnesota," Pritzker said Thursday. "Their hospitalizations have gone way up, their hospitals are full. You see the rest of the country coming down, and yet Minnesota and Michigan very relatively nearby to us, have been rising. So we want to be very careful to take all of these things in."
In late August, Illinois experienced a rapid surge in COVID cases with the most cases reported in a single day since January at the time. Pritzker reissued the state's mask mandate, saying then Illinois was "running out of time as our hospitals run out of beds." Weeks later, the worrisome scenario became reality in southern Illinois as zero of 88 staffed intensive care units beds were said to be available.
Improvements in the daily case rate have been reported in weeks. On Friday, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported the state’s seven-day positivity rate on all tests dropped to 2.5% from 2.6% last week. The rolling average seven-day positivity rate for cases as a percentage of total tests also dropped to 2.0% from 2.1% last week.
As of midnight Thursday, 1,500 patients were hospitalized due to COVID in the state. Of those patients, 341 are in ICU beds, and 172 are on ventilators.