CHICAGO - Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Tuesday that the city will end its mask mandate and vaccine requirement for certain indoor spaces beginning next week.
The end of the mandates coincides with the rest of the state lifting its indoor mask mandate on Feb. 28.
However, wearing masks will still be required in certain spaces, such as on public transit and in healthcare settings.
"Based on key data, it looks as if the worst of the Omicron surge is behind us and we will be able to safely remove these emergency measures instituted to protect the health and safety of our residents," Mayor Lightfoot said in a statement. "I want to thank Chicagoans and in particular, our business community for adhering to these measures and helping us pass through this difficult time while keeping restaurants and other businesses open."
In addition, Chicago Public School students, teachers and employees must keep their masks on for the time being.
Rather than risk yet another confrontation with the Chicago Teachers Union — and with vaccination rates varying dramatically between school communities — Mayor Lightfoot and her hand-picked CPS CEO Pedro Martinez are prepared, for now, to abide by the agreement they struck with CTU that ended a dispute that canceled classes for five days last month.
At least one lawsuit has been filed — by CPS parents in Mount Greenwood — that could end up lifting the mask mandate in Chicago schools. Mandates already have been lifted in more than 150 school districts elsewhere around the state.
"CPS is obviously aware of the decision we’re announcing today. They are in the process of engaging with their stakeholders internally and externally. And I would expect an announcement from them in the coming days," Lightfoot said.
The safety agreement with the teachers union mandates masks in schools until August.
The announcement to end the mandates comes as COVID-19 metrics are falling in Illinois, Chicago and across the country – an indicator that the omicron variant’s hold is weakening.
The current 7-day rolling average test positivity in Chicago sits at 1.5%.
"This doesn’t mean COVID is gone, it simply means transmission levels are lower than they have been during surges. I still encourage people to take precautions and definitely get vaccinated to protect yourself and your loved ones," Chicago’s top doctor, Dr. Allison Arwady, said in a statement.
Total confirmed US cases reported Saturday barely exceeded 100,000, a sharp downturn from around 800,850 five weeks ago on Jan. 16, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
"I think what’s influencing the decline, of course, is that omicron is starting to run out of people to infect," said Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and infectious disease chief at the University of Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are down from a national seven-day average of 146,534 on Jan. 20 to 80,185 the week ending in Feb 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID data tracker.
Public health experts say they are feeling hopeful that more declines are ahead and that the country is shifting from being in a pandemic to an ‘endemic’ that is more consistent and predictable. However, many expressed concern that vaccine uptick in the U.S. has still been below expectations, concerns that are exacerbated by the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.
Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine said Sunday that the downturn in case numbers and hospitalizations is encouraging. He agreed that it likely has a lot to do with herd immunity.
"There are two sides to omicron’s coin," he said. "The bad thing is that it can spread to a lot of people and make them mildly ill. The good thing is it can spread to a lot of people and make them mildly ill, because in doing so, it has created a lot of natural immunity."
However, Schaffner said it’s much too early to "raise the banner of mission accomplished." As a public health expert, he said he’ll be more comfortable if the decline sustains itself for another month or two.
"If I have a concern, it’s that taking off the interventions, the restrictions, may be happening with a bit more enthusiasm and speed than makes me comfortable," he said. "My own little adage is, better to wear the mask for a month too long, than to take the mask off a month too soon and all of a sudden get another surge."
Associated Press and Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.