Fans allowed at Bulls, Blackhawks games as Chicago continues to ease restrictions
With two million vaccine doses administered and health metrics improving, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is reopening Chicago a little bit more — this time to let restaurants and theaters serve more patrons and allow fans inside the United Center for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
The new Phase Four rules, effective immediately, allow the Bulls and Blackhawks to close their seasons before roughly 5,250 fans per game — 25% of the United Center’s capacity.
The Blackhawks play at home Thursday and Saturday against the Florida Panthers, then finish their regular-season home schedule with two games in May. The Bulls have a home game Friday, the first of six regular-season games left.
That 25% rule also applies to Wrigley Field, Guaranteed Rate Field and Soldier Field, an increase from the current 20%. The 25% also includes churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship.
Restaurants and bars can increase indoor capacity to 50% or 100 people, whichever is less. The cap had been 50% or 50 people.
Meetings, conferences and conventions held at large indoor venues like McCormick Place now can operate at 25% capacity or 250 people, whichever is less.
Festivals and, what the city calls “general admission outdoor spectator events” get the green light to welcome 15 people for every 1,000 square feet.
The same rules apply to flea markets, which can operate at 25% capacity.
2:41 p.m. Shot, please! Preckwinkle pushes vaccinations for restaurant workers as indoor capacity expands
Public health officials in Cook County are serving up COVID-19 vaccines to bar and restaurant workers as the suburbs follow in lockstep with Chicago’s latest round of eased coronavirus restrictions.
Mondays in May will be designated “restaurant days” at the county’s six suburban mass vaccination sites, Cook County Board Presidents Toni Preckwinkle announced Thursday.
Anyone can sign up for an appointment or walk up to the six sites in Tinley Park, Matteson, River Grove, South Holland, Des Plaines or Forest Park. But officials want to vaccinate as many of the “essential heroes” in the hospitality industry as possible with indoor capacity expanding to the lesser of 50% or 100 people per room.
“Restaurant staff people worked tirelessly, even as they were asked to pivot to new roles to meet new demands, even as hours were cut, doors were closed, and their own life livelihoods were in jeopardy,” Preckwinkle said. “Now we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and people are returning toward cafes and restaurants for a sense of normal normalcy and camaraderie that we all have craved.”
An estimated 20% of restaurants statewide won’t survive the pandemic, according to Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia, shuttering about 5,000 businesses and leaving more than 100,000 out of work.
1:43 p.m. 23 coronavirus cases, one of them fatal, linked to lunch at warehouse in Naperville, federal safety agency finds
A federal investigation has found that a Naperville warehouse failed to quarantine employees following a COVID-19 outbreak tied to a luncheon that caused nearly two dozen workers to contract the virus, including one who died.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says Midwest Warehouse and Distribution System Inc. failed to take steps “to identify, inform, isolate and quarantine” exposed employees.
In all, 23 employees tested positive for the coronavirus days after the late October luncheon, including one employee who died of complications on Nov. 4, the agency said in a statement.
The Woodridge-based company faces a fine of $12,288.
1:09 p.m. Free rides, pot and savings bonds: Vaccinators get creative
Free beer, pot and doughnuts. Savings bonds. A chance to win an all-terrain vehicle. Places around the U.S. are offering incentives to try to energize the nation’s slowing vaccination drive and get Americans to roll up their sleeves.
These relatively small corporate promotion efforts have been accompanied by more serious and far-reaching attempts by officials in cities such as Detroit, where they’re offering $50 to people who give others a ride to vaccination sites. Chicago is sending specially equipped buses into neighborhoods to deliver vaccines.
Public health officials say the efforts are crucial to reach people who haven’t been immunized yet, whether because they are hesitant or because they have had trouble making an appointment or getting to a vaccination site.
12:19 p.m. City contact tracers had access to COVID-19 patient records after quitting or being fired, investigation finds
More than a quarter of the city’s COVID-19 contact tracers who left their jobs as of early this year still had access to patient data for at least a month after their termination, an investigation from the city’s watchdog found.
Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office investigated Chicago’s contact tracing program, which is run by an organization under contract with the city, and found the Chicago’ Department of Public Health “did not consistently remove terminated users’ access” to a system of tracking COVID-19 patients within seven days, which is a standard.
Of the almost 600 contact tracers hired last year, the report found 50 of those workers had been fired or resigned as of Feb. 15, 2021. While all of the departing workers should have had their access to a system with patient data cut off within 7 days, only 11 had the ability removed. A month later, more than a quarter of those contact tracers were still able to look at patient information, though city officials told investigators they believe none of the ex-employees tried to access records.
COVID-19 contact tracing, which involves interviewing people who test positive for the virus along with anyone they might have infected, is considered an important tool in fighting the pandemic. While the report found that the city’s tracing program, run by Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership and more than 30 community organizations, largely did a good job of protecting privacy and reducing cybersecurity risks, it said some oversight practices can be improved.
11:45 a.m. US recovery from pandemic recession is showing momentum
Powered by consumers and fueled by government aid, the U.S. economy is achieving a remarkably fast recovery from the recession that ripped through the nation last year on the heels of the coronavirus and cost tens of millions of Americans their jobs and businesses.
The economy grew last quarter at a vigorous 6.4% annual rate, the government said Thursday, and expectations are that the current quarter will be even better. The number of people seeking unemployment aid — a rough reflection of layoffs — last week reached its lowest point since the pandemic struck. And the National Association of Realtors said Thursday that more Americans signed contracts to buy homes in March, reflecting a strong housing market as summer approaches.
Economists say that widespread vaccinations and declining viral cases, the reopening of more businesses, a huge infusion of federal aid and healthy job gains should help sustain steady growth. For 2021 as a whole, they expect the economy to expand around 7%, which would mark the fastest calendar-year growth since 1984.
11:09 a.m. 1 in 5 high schools students absent from class, CPS data shows
Almost one in five Chicago Public Schools high schoolers was absent last week regardless of whether they signed up for in-person learning or chose to stay remote, according to district data released Wednesday.
The new attendance figures come as officials celebrate the reopening of all CPS high schools last week, a milestone reached after long negotiations with the teachers union and after 13 months of closures because of COVID-19.
District leaders have said offering in-person classes is the first step to recovering from the pandemic, but they’ll face challenges in the months ahead in reengaging students who haven’t had consistent or quality access to education.
Districtwide, including elementary schools, “we are continuing to see the majority of our students learning virtually, with an overall attendance rate of 89.5%,” Bogdana Chkoumbova, CPS’ chief of school management, said at Wednesday’s virtual Board of Education meeting.
Keeping with trends throughout this school year, Black students and children experiencing homelessness have had the highest absentee rates, largely because those populations have been most impacted by the various barriers to learning during the pandemic.
10:02 a.m. Fans should still take precautions when attending sporting events
Is it safe to go to big sporting events during the pandemic?
Not yet, but there are ways to make it safer if you go.
“Yelling, chanting, hugging and generally pouring out our sports enthusiasm is still not the safest activity,” noted Jennifer Dowd, associate professor of population health at University of Oxford and chief scientific officer of Dear Pandemic, a website that offers expert opinions.
If you do decide to go to a game, outdoor stadiums are safer than indoor arenas, which won’t be as well ventilated. Venues that limit attendance and require masks are safer as well. Some teams are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for the coronavirus.
Once at the stadium, avoid indoor bars, restaurants and box seating, Dowd said. “Spaces that are indoors with lots of people eating and drinking without masks are still among the riskiest,” she said.
8:37 a.m. CPS to allow in-person graduations for class of 2021
Large commencements with hundreds of cheering parents, siblings and grandparents might not return for some time, but this year’s 8th graders and high school seniors will be able to take part in more traditional ceremonies than last year.
Both indoor and outdoor graduations and other end-of-year events can be held this spring with some capacity restrictions, Chicago Public Schools officials announced at Wednesday’s virtual Board of Education meeting.
“As we look for ways to honor our graduates after what’s been a very difficult year, the district developed a plan to celebrate graduates while ensuring the safety of each school community,” Bogdana Chkoumbova, CPS’ chief of school management, told the school board.
“Schools will have the option to hold indoor, outdoor or virtual graduation events where students can obtain their diplomas and take pictures in their caps and gowns,” Chkoumbova said. “Graduations can either be social events, where mingling can occur, or spectator events that are ticketed and seated with no mingling.”
7:12 a.m. Outdoor mask guidance echoes what many Americans already do
In the small Nebraska town of Oxford, the school district dropped its mask mandate last month in what was a fairly straight-forward decision: Cases were down dramatically, and it didn’t bother local officials that their move flouted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Those federal mask guidelines just didn’t seem to fit local conditions well in the town of about 800 people where hardly anyone wears a mask.
“We haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to what is going on at the federal level — mainly what is coming out through the state,” Southern Valley Superintendent Bryce Jorgensen said. “You just can’t compare Chicago to Oxford, Nebraska. Things are just different.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidelines on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces anymore unless they are in a big crowd of strangers. And those who are unvaccinated can go outside without masks in some situations, too.
For most of the past year, the CDC had been advising Americans to wear masks outdoors if they are within 6 feet of one another.
The decision marked the U.S. government’s latest step toward normalcy, but came as much of the country already had moved on from mask rules. The CDC essentially endorsed what many Americans have already been doing.
New cases and vaccination rates
- A total of 3,394 new cases of COVID-19 and 38 additional deaths were reported by Illinois health officials Thursday.
- The latest cases were among 89,057 specimens tested over the last 24 hours, bringing the state’s positivity rate to 4%, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
- A total of 107,689 vaccine doses were administered in the state Thursday, health officials said. An average of 97,434 vaccine doses have been administered per day over the last week.
- Since the pandemic began, over 1.3 million people in Illinois have tested positive for COVID-19 and 21,927 have died, officials said.