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Government, Politics & Issues

Illinois Announces Details Of Next COVID Reopening Phase, Vaccine Eligibility Expansion

 Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a mass vaccination site at Shabbona Middle School in Morris on Thursday, March 11. The governor announced a new plan to relax more COVID restrictions in Illinois on Thursday.
Screenshot via Illinois.gov
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a mass vaccination site at Shabbona Middle School in Morris on Thursday, March 11. The governor announced a new plan to relax more COVID restrictions in Illinois on Thursday.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced new plans Thursday toward fully reopening Illinois from coronavirus restrictions, and said all residents over the age of 16 will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting mid-April.

Universal eligibility begins Monday, April 12, Pritzker said during a news conference in Chicago. Eligibility will apply at all state-run mass vaccination sites, local health departments and pharmacies.

Before April 12, eligibility will expand to more groups of vulnerable people. Pritzker did not specify which groups.

The governor also announced a new “Bridge to Phase 5” in Illinois’ COVID-19 reopening plan. The state was in Phase 4 as of Thursday, with the next and final fifth phase characterized by large gatherings and full business reopenings with precautions as part of a “new normal.”

Instead, Pritzker said, the new period between Phases 4 and 5 will be based on vaccination percentages. It will also allow for higher capacity at businesses and gatherings, and the state will move through the phases as a whole, not regionally.

Illinois will move into the bridge phase when 70% of residents older than 65 have received at least a first dose. That group was at 58% as of Thursday. Before moving to that phase, Illinois will also have to maintain low hospitalization, case and death rates over 28 days.

Assuming there’s no significant increase in coronavirus rates, the state could move into Phase 5 if 50% of residents age 16 and older have received their first dose and after an additional 28-day period in the bridge phase. That group was at 28% as of Thursday.

A statewide mask requirement will remain in place until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says it is no longer needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Illinois Department of Public Health Dr. Ngozi Ezike said.

“Combining these decreasing trends and cases and hospitalizations and deaths, with increasing vaccinations, that is clearly a recipe for ending this pandemic. We cannot lose our momentum. To do this, we will continue to wear our masks,” Ezike said.

If state health officials see a spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths over 10 days, it could re-implement restrictions.

State Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, praised the bridge phase as a step forward, but said lawmakers should have been involved in decisionmaking.

“I continue to be disappointed with the way the Governor is handling this process. For weeks, I have urged the Governor to bring lawmakers to the table to work together to establish transparent and clear guidelines for allowing Illinois to fully reopen in a safe and efficient manner,” said Bryant, who also called for the governor to lift the statewide mask mandate.

But Illinois’ slow and cautious approach is the best to prevent a surge like the region saw in the fall, said infectious disease specialist Dr. Clay Dunagan, chief clinical officer for BJC Healthcare.

While dramatic drops in illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths in the St. Louis metro area represent positive developments, new COVID-19 variants are more transmissible and possibly more dangerous, Dunagan said. They could cause another surge before vaccinations are widespread enough to protect the community and allow for full reopening.

“I don’t think we’ve done enough vaccinating yet to forestall another surge,” Dunagan said.

Early data suggests having COVID-19 offers some immunity from the dominant strain. Researchers are finding, however, that the vaccine offers more protection from the new strains than simply having recovered from coronavirus, Dunagan added. The more people get vaccinated, the more effective herd immunity will be against the dominant strain and variants.

The other concern is that resurgences take time to appear and might not be detected until COVID-19 numbers are ticking up again. By the time an upsurge becomes apparent, it could take more drastic measures to slow.

“From my perspective, we should go incredibly slowly on reopening at least until we have the most vulnerable populations immunized,” Dunagan said. “Once we get those groups vaccinated, we can be a little more aggressive about opening as long as we’re ready to turn it off if rates pick up.”

Vaccination deliveries are expected to become drastically more plentiful, making herd immunity through vaccination increasingly likely.

Illinois averaged 99,210 vaccine doses administered over seven days as of Thursday. In its first shipment from the federal government in December, the state received 109,000 doses. This week it received more than 800,000, Pritzker said. The governor expects weekly deliveries to surpass 1 million in April.

Vaccine information and locations can be found at coronavirus.illinois.gov and the state has a hotline to make appointments for those without internet access at 833-621-1280.

What changes in Illinois' COVID-19 plan?

The state made some changes to Phase 4 and announced rules for the bridge phase and Phase 5.

Notably, people who can prove they have been fully vaccinated — that is, 14 days after their last dose — or have received a negative COVID-19 test within three days prior to an event will not count against capacity limits.

Here are the current capacity restrictions in Phase 4 and the bridge phase. There will be no capacity limits in Phase 5.

Phase 4

Dining: Patrons seated 6 feet apart with parties of less than 10; 25% standing capacity

Health and fitness: 50% capacity limit, group fitness classes of 50 or fewer indoors or 100 or fewer outdoors

Offices, personal care businesses, retail, and film production: 50% capacity

Museums and amusement parks: 25% capacity

Festivals and general admission outdoor spectator events: 15 people per 1,000 square feet

Flea and farmers markets: 25% capacity or 15 people per 1,000 square feet

Meetings, conferences and conventions: Venues with capacity for less than 200 people — Lesser of 50 people or 50% capacity; For those with over 200-person capacity — Lesser of 250 people or 25% capacity

Recreation: Indoor — Lesser of 50 people or 50% capacity; Outdoor — Maximum groups of 50; multiple groups permissible

Social events: Indoor — Lesser of 50 people or 50% capacity; Outdoor — Lesser of 100 people or 50% capacity

Spectator events (ticketed and seated), and theater and performing arts: Indoor venue with less than 200-person capacity — Lesser of 50 people or 50% capacity; Outdoor venue or indoor venue with more than 200-person capacity — 25% capacity

Zoos: 25% capacity, lesser of 50 people or 50% at indoor 60% exhibits

Bridge to Phase 5

Dining: Patrons seated at least 6 feet apart with parties of 10 or less; 30% indoor standing capacity; 50% outdoor capacity

Health and fitness: 60% capacity; Group fitness classes of 50 or fewer indoors or 100 or fewer outdoors

Offices, personal care businesses, retail, amusement parts, museums, film production, spectator events, theaters and performing arts, zoos: 60%

Festivals and general admission outdoor spectator events: 30 people per 1,000 square feet

Flea and farmers markets: Indoor — 15 people per 1,000 square feet; Outdoor — 30 people per 1,000 square feet

Meetings, conferences and conventions: Lesser of 1,000 people or 60% capacity

Recreation: Indoor — Lesser of 100 people or 50% capacity; Outdoor — Maximum groups of 100; multiple groups permissible

Social events: Indoor — 250 people; Outdoor — 500 people

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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