SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday that at the end of the month he will lift the requirement for wearing face coverings in most indoor spaces to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the mandate will stay in place for K-12 schools where students, teachers and staff are clustered together.
Pritzker said masks will no longer be required to enter restaurants, grocery stores or other indoor spaces starting Feb. 28. The Democratic governor cited plummeting hospitalization numbers three weeks after the omicron surge, vaccinations and residents carefully covering up against the contagious virus.
“Vaccines work. Masks work," Pritzker said during a Chicago briefing the same day that New York announced similar changes. “And as a result of them and the tremendous commitment of our state's residents, we are on track to come out on the other side of this latest COVID storm in better shape than even the doctors expected.”
Hospitalizations, which peaked at 7,320 in mid-January, dropped to 3,135 last week; Pritzker said Wednesday's number was about 2,500.
Although the change in policy doesn't apply to schools, Pritzker has appealed a circuit court ruling last week that found he had overstepped by requiring face coverings for in-person learning.
Defending his decision, Pritzker said school vaccination rates are lower, it's harder to keep an appropriate distance in hallways and classrooms, and outbreaks in schools can spread quickly through a community.
“The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population,” he said. “Schools need a little more time for community infection rates to drop, for our youngest learners to become vaccine eligible and more parents to get kids vaccinated.”
Critics pounced on the proclamation, noting Illinois is one of only nine states requiring masks in schools while other states have adopted safe and mask-free approaches. Republican Rep. Blaine Wilhour, of Beecher City said Pritzker, his public health and education advisers and the media have bought into "this narrative of fear, compliance and politics.”
Wilhour joined fellow Republicans, Rep. Adam Niemerg of Dieterich and candidate for governor Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, in lashing out at Pritzker for ignoring the Sangamon County court ruling that declared Pritzker's school mask rules “null and void.”
Niemerg said Pritzker's public health department has repeatedly confirmed under his questioning that children are no more susceptible to COVID-19 than originally thought.
“School-aged children, preschoolers, first-graders, second-graders have never seen a (teacher's) face before," Niemerg said. "They can't practice phonics because they're still required to wear masks.”
Two other Republican gubernatorial challengers, businessman Gary Rabine of Bull Valley and Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, issued statements criticizing the decision to lift the mask ban for everyone but, in Irvin's words, “the lowest-risk population.”
Pritzker said municipalities and local organizations may set their own mask rules. Federally controlled places such as mass transit still require masks. Those exposed to COVID-19 or who have symptoms must wear masks.
The Chicago Department of Public Health said in a statement Wednesday that if hospitalizations and other virus metrics continue to fall like they are statewide, the city likely will lift its mask mandate at the same time.
“This isn’t an end to the pandemic and it’s not going back to normal ...,” said Dr. Emily Landon, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Chicago Medical School. “This is a virus that’s ruled by biology. It doesn’t negotiate with us or care about how we feel about it. We have to adjust to it and we have to take advantage of the breaks that we get. We’re headed into one of those breaks.”
Since late January 2020, when the virus first crossed into Illinois, it has sickened 2.96 million people, taking the lives of 31,296 as of last week.
Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor