Chicago announced on Tuesday that it is reinstating its indoor mask mandate for people regardless of their vaccination status, joining a growing number of cities and states responding similarly to rising COVID-19 cases.
At a press conference, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said that the rule will apply to indoor public settings in the city for people ages 2 and up, beginning Friday. When the city surpassed 200 coronavirus cases per day, it merely recommended indoor masking, but it is making that a requirement now that cases have passed 400 per day.
“Once we get through the delta surge, I anticipate that [cases] will come back down,” Arwady said, adding that Chicago is currently averaging 419 COVID-19 diagnoses per day, moving up from the category of “substantial risk” to “higher risk.”
The commissioner stressed that other primary metrics such as test positivity rates and hospitalizations are still in the “lower risk” category. Chicago’s test positivity is at 4.9%, and the city is averaging 18 COVID-19 hospitalizations per day.
The highest case rate has been among unvaccinated people who are 30-59 years old, followed by people ages 18-29. Both the highest hospitalization rate and the highest death rate have been among unvaccinated Chicagoans who are 60 years or older. Arwady said that the hospitalization rate is “really striking where we look at our Chicago data and how much that risk is falling on people who are unvaccinated.”
More than 60% of eligible Chicagoans have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. While there are “breakthrough” cases of vaccinated people getting infected, Arwady said that about 99.7% of vaccinated Chicagoans have avoided a COVID-19 diagnosis after receiving their shots. For the unlucky people who are vaccinated but still get the virus, 99.99% have not needed to be hospitalized.
“So at this point, this is largely, especially the severe outcomes, a vaccine-preventable disease,” Arwady said. “And if you’ve been waiting to get your vaccine, especially if you’re over 60, delta is here, now is the time. We want to keep people safe and out of the hospital, and vaccines, clearly based on our Chicago data, is the most important way to do that.”
The indoor mask mandate will remain in place as long as Chicago’s case count stays above 400 cases per day. When cases fall consistently below that number, the city will revert to a mask recommendation.
Arwady highlighted that while coronavirus cases are currently rising, they are still well below the first two surges Chicago experienced during the pandemic. During the first peak last year, the city averaged about 1,000 cases per day and 200 hospitalizations per day, and testing was not as readily available. By the end of last year, during the second peak, the cases had risen to between 2,500 and sometimes 3,500 per day, with close to 150 hospitalizations per day.
The current rise in cases and shift into the higher risk category is “concerning” and is the reason “why we’re acting,” Arwady said. “But in terms of where we’ve been as a city, it is not a cause for alarm; it is a cause for caution.”
The mask mandate will include businesses such as bars and restaurants, gyms, common areas of apartment buildings and private venues, said Ken Meyer, Chicago’s acting commissioner of business affairs and consumer protection. Masks are recommended but not required for unvaccinated people in outdoor settings such as sidewalk cafes, outdoor patios, rooms with retractable roofs and outdoor tents with sides open.
There are currently no customer limits for businesses. The city is “not here to hurt businesses, we are here to protect all Chicagoans,” Meyer said.
“We are not anticipating at this point adding additional business restrictions,” Arwady said. “However, we’re watching what happens with these metrics, and if we see some of those hospital numbers start to move in ways that look untenable as they have seen in the South, or if we start to see, for example, our case count get to the very high-risk category ― over 800 cases per day ― we may need to put further restrictions in place.”
“But different than last year, when we did not have a vaccine, a high case count does not automatically equate to a high hospitalization count and a high death count,” she noted, “and we’re hopeful that having the masks in place for everybody will get us through delta, while we keep working on getting folks vaccinated.”
“And with doing that, our goal is to remain open, but careful.”