CHICAGO — Chicago’s top health official said Sunday the city has “no goal or current plans to close down Chicago again.”
But Dr. Allison Arwady said “we need people once again to step up” to get vaccine and, for now, use masks indoors — even those who are vaccinated.
“In Chicago, we can be open and be careful at the same time,” Arwady said. “Being careful means getting vaccinated.”
City officials said they continue to advise, not require, people to wear masks indoors. But at an unusual Sunday news conference, Mayor Lori Lightfoot also strongly stated — following a question about Lollapalooza fans crowding onto CTA lines — that anyone traveling on public transportation should wear a mask. The CTA requires masks to be worn on buses, trains and platforms and in stations.
Lightfoot said everyone in the city “has the tools right now to fight this virus and the variant.”
“The vaccine. The vaccine. The vaccine,” Lightfoot said. “That’s the tool we have to help ourselves, to help our family, to help our community and our city. ... We need people to mask up and vax up.”
Arwady sought to put the rising case numbers in context, noting that they’re not approaching the rates seen in a series of previous surges, and to debunk myths about the vaccine, such as that thousands of people have died from the shots, that they cause infertility or that they implant microchips.
“That is not true,” she said repeatedly. She encouraged people to ask questions of experts or a trusted medical professional, do research and “don’t simply take the word of someone who is posting on Facebook because there is a lot of misinformation.”
And despite recent reports of breakthrough cases, where fully vaccinated people test positive for coronavirus, Arwady stressed that the vast majority of current coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths are among those who are not inoculated, and that 99.9% of vaccinated Chicagoans have not been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Most of Chicago’s and Illinois’ COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in June as cases fell and vaccination rates rose. But that began to change in recent days with the current surge of the delta variant, which the CDC said can be more easily spread by people who are vaccinated, even if it doesn’t tend to make them seriously ill.
With the entire Chicago region now under the CDC’s indoor-mask-for-all guidance as of Friday for “substantial” coronavirus spread — and most of the state listed as “substantial or “high” transmission — Gov. J.B. Pritzker mandated masks in all state buildings, regardless of vaccination status. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus said it would require masks in all indoor spaces.
Producers of Lollapalooza, now in its final day in Chicago’s Grant Park and which has been packing in hundreds of thousands of mostly unmasked people since Thursday, did the same.
On Sunday, Lightfoot praised Lollapalooza’s producers, saying they’d done“an incredible job” working with the Department of Public Health and that they incentivized thousands of people to get the vaccine. She noted that 90% of people who have gone through the gates have shown proof of vaccination.
“That’s where we want to be. We feel very comfortable about that partnership and the protocols in place on a daily basis,” Lightfoot said.
Asked whether allowing Lollapalooza was the right call, the mayor said that “millions of people” have attended outdoor events all summer, citing White Sox and Cubs games as well as other festivals.
“I feel very good about what we’ve done,” Lightfoot said. “Obviously, we’ll know a little more in a week or 10 days.”
On Friday, the city issued guidance strongly encouraging businesses, employers and event organizers to “require universal masking in all public indoor settings.” Outdoors, the new guidance says, masks were still optional and “no changes are being made to the recommendations for social distancing.”
Also Friday, Chicago passed the 200 mark of average new daily cases, which the mayor had cited as a possible threshold for new restrictions.
Lightfoot has faced a complicated balancing act on the pandemic, which arrived less than a year into her term. She has pleaded with residents to get vaccinated and warned about possible restrictions if the city sees spikes. But she also has made a point of emphasizing her desire to keep the city as open as possible. At times, it has led to some mixed messaging.
That was on display again Sunday when the message delivered was that the city doesn’t need to close up again, but only if people continue to take masking seriously and if remaining holdouts get vaccinated.
While in some Chicago neighborhoods the vast majority of eligible residents are vaccinated, Lightfoot highlighted six ZIP codes where that rate is less than 50%: 60633 in South Deering, 60621 in Englewood, 60649 in South Shore, 60620 in Auburn Gresham, 60644 in Austin and 60628 in Roseland.
If you live there and aren’t vaccinated, “you are playing with your life,” Lightfoot said.