Proclaiming that he is "more optimistic today than I have been at any time" since the deadly virus crossed state lines in February 2020, the Democratic governor unveiled what he called a dial-up return to a sense of normalcy based on percentages of the population having been fully vaccinated.
Additionally, Pritzker announced that with supplies of vaccine increasing, priority distribution will end April 12. Anyone 16 or older will be allowed to get a shot in the arm three weeks earlier than the May 1 date President Joe Biden set for universal eligibility.
"Although we still are in the midst of a global pandemic, the end seems truly to be in sight," Pritzker said at a Chicago news conference. "... These vaccines are our fastest ticket back to hugging our grandkids, eating inside restaurants without worrying about the risks, school dances, community celebrations."
The news brought elation to the hospitality industry after a year of economic devastation prompted by the need for social distancing because of the highly contagious nature of the illness.
"Illinois is on track to safely welcome visitors and with that comes revenue for our state and municipalities, customers for our small businesses, and jobs for our workforce," Jayne DeLuce, board chairwoman of the Illinois Council of Convention & Visitor Bureaus, said in a statement.
But Pritzker raised a yellow flag of caution, urging continued patience and compliance with safety measures, notably wearing a face covering when going out in public. The illness claimed 34 more lives Thursday, for a total since March 2020 of more than 21,000. The 2,325 newly confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 added to a total of 1.22 million since the pandemic began.
Officials in Chicago, which sets its own rules, might not follow the state’s lead on expanded vaccine eligibility April 12. On Wednesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the city would expand the vaccine pool on March 29 to include people with additional health concerns and people in essential industries such as food service and construction. But there’s no decision on when the city might open vaccination appointments to all.
Pritzker said he hoped Chicago would follow the state’s guidance on reopening too and move quickly to reduce restrictions. All local governments retain the option of having stricter conditions than the state.
Rather than abruptly jumping to unfettered interaction as prescribed in the "Restore Illinois" plan developed last spring, Pritzker will phase in greater flexibility for gatherings based on percentages of the vaccinated population and barring any reversals wrought by the unpredictable disease.
The newly envisioned "bridge" to Phase 5 begins when 70% of residents aged 65 or older are vaccinated. The number stands at 58% currently. The bridge would allow greater numbers of indoor diners. Parties would still be limited to 10 or fewer people each 6 feet apart, but standing areas such as bars can be filled to 30% capacity indoors and 50% outdoors.
Other spaces limited to 50% capacity currently, including retail outlets, offices and health clubs, we be allowed 60%. Similar capacity levels will apply to amusements parks, theaters, museums, spectator events and more.
If after 28 days in the bridge program, there are no significant setbacks in terms of cases, hospitalizations or deaths, Phase 5, with normal business operations, will be re-introduced once 50% of everyone aged 16 and older is vaccinated.
Pritzker would not guess at dates for marking these significant transitions. But a clear roadmap is necessary for businesses to plan, said Michael Jacobson, president and CEO of the Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association.
"This underscores the importance of providing clarity to event planners, supports our shared goal of getting people back to work safely and illustrates why the governor’s announcement reflects his desire to serve as the chief marketing officer for the state," Jacobson said.