By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Illinois is now in Phase 5 of the COVID-19 reopening plan, meaning businesses and organizations can resume normal activity, although some limited restrictions will remain in place.
Under Phase 5 guidelines, capacity limits are being lifted for both indoor and outdoor activities while people who have been fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear face coverings in most settings and businesses are no longer required to enforce mask mandates or maintain social distancing rules, although they may continue to do so if they choose.
People who have not been fully vaccinated are still encouraged to wear face coverings, and all people are still required to wear face coverings while traveling on public transportation, in congregate settings, in health care settings as well as in schools, day cares and educational institutions.
Those changes come 15 months after Gov. JB Pritzker first issued a disaster declaration in response to the pandemic which, as of last week, had infected nearly 1.4 million people in Illinois and claimed 23,014 lives.
Due to the wide availability of vaccines, which first became publicly available in January, new infections and hospitalization rates have reached their lowest points since the pandemic began.
The Illinois Department of Public Health reported on June 10 that 68 percent of Illinois adults had received at least one dose of vaccine and 51 percent were fully vaccinated.
During an interview with Capitol News Illinois last week, Pritzker said that even though the state was ready to enter the final reopening phase, he was not yet prepared to lift the disaster proclamation he first issued on March 9, 2020, which has served as the legal basis behind scores of executive orders such as a ban on residential evictions and utility shutoffs. It has been extended monthly since that date.
“It's a new chapter, of course, in the pandemic but we aren't quite ready yet to remove the disaster declaration,” Pritzker said. “There are things that need to be ramped down and, you know, making sure of course that we actually are seeing continued decrease of cases and hospitalizations.”
The March 9 disaster declaration was followed on March 15 by an executive order closing K-12 schools to in-person learning. In the following days Pritzker issued an order closing bars and restaurants to on-premises service and, on March 20, a general stay-at-home order that effectively shut down major parts of the state’s economy.
By April, the state’s unemployment rate had spiked to a modern-day high of 16.3 percent as tens of thousands of workers each week filed first-time unemployment claims. But as economic restrictions were gradually relaxed over the summer, the jobless rate began to subside, falling to 7.5 percent in October and, most recently, 7.1 percent in April.
Asked during his interview with CNI whether, in retrospect, he wished he would have handled things differently, Pritzker said he had to work with the information he had at the time.
“I can tell you that if I knew then what I know now, I'm sure I might have made some different decisions,” he said. “But that just wasn't something available to me. What we had was a novel coronavirus.”
Pritzker added that just a few days before he issued the stay-at-home order he received projections – a copy of which he said remains on his desk – that said if the state took no action, Chicago alone would see 20,000 deaths from COVID-19 by August of that year.
“So we had to make decisions quickly. We had to be decisive about it,” he said. “I needed to be transparent and communicate at 188 press conferences during the year 2020. And it was my job to not only give people the facts, but do that in the face of the president in Washington, D.C., who was lying to people about this. And I think people needed to hear from somebody, somebody that they would be willing to listen to, that they trust.”
“And people did the right thing,” he added. “I mean, this is the amazing thing about Illinois, that we put the mitigations in place, and then people actually followed them and did the right thing, the result of which is many, many lives were saved.”
(Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.)