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Pritzker Unfreezing Regions From Mitigations Doesn’t Mean Indoor Dining’s Return — Yet

Gov. JB Pritzker speaks to reporters in his Capitol office for the first time in months on Jan. 11, 2021.

SPRINGFIELD — Governor JB Pritzker on Friday will unfreeze all of Illinois’ 11 regions from the so-called Tier III Coronavirus mitigations he implemented statewide in November as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic raged.

But that doesn’t mean the automatic return of indoor dining in Illinois. First, a region would have to qualify to exit Tier III mitigations, followed by moving backward through Tier II and Tier I mitigations. Only then would a region enter back into Phase 4 of Pritzker’s Restore Illinois economic reopening plan, where indoor dining is allowed.

Pritzker’s tiered mitigation program includes restrictions on industries beyond restaurants and bars, but those businesses have been both the most vocal about restrictions, and their closure for indoor service has been the most readily apparent change for most Illinoisans, making it emblematic of the mitigations.

Escalating mitigations

After Pritzker revamped his Restore Illinois plans in July — including splitting the state into 11 regions instead of four, and implementing a tiered mitigation strategy to deal with a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall — two regions saw a shutdown of indoor dining in August. Region 4 (Metro East) and Region 7 (Kankakee and Will counties) triggered Tier I mitigations when their positivity rates (based on a seven-day rolling average) reached 8% or above for three days in a row.

That’s one way a region can trigger Tier I mitigations, but there are two other ways:

Courtesy of Gov. JB Pritzker's Office

The Metro East was the first region to enter into Tier I mitigations in mid-August. However, at that time, Tier I mitigations only meant indoor bar service would be suspended, and indoor dining capacity would be reduced — along with the maximum number of people allowed at a table. But Pritzker’s administration did not end up shuttering indoor bar service for the Metro East when the region first triggered Tier I mitigations, instead attempting to match restrictions across the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

But by the time Region 7 triggered Tier I mitigations about a week later, Pritzker reversed course and altered the mitigations to ban indoor service at both restaurants and bars. This change caused consternation among local business owners and elected officials, and confusion for many across the state about the policy switch.

Outdoor dining has been allowed in all three tiers of mitigations, though Tier II mitigations limits the size of parties to 10. Though Pritzker’s initial plans for Tier III mitigations banned in-person dining altogether, the restaurant and hospitality industry successfully lobbied to keep outdoor dining on the table, which has resulted in establishments purchasing tents and even elaborate clear bubbles with air filtration systems in order to stay open for customers. 

While Regions 4 and 7 eventually exited an initial round of mitigations, all regions of the state began triggering mitigations in September, October and November. 

Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

But the pandemic’s second wave proved unrelenting, and on Nov. 20, Pritzker put all regions of the state into Tier III mitigations, which closed businesses like casinos, movie theaters and bowling alleys, banned group fitness classes in gyms and blocked banquet halls and country clubs from hosting any gatherings — including weddings.

On Nov. 30, Pritzker froze all 11 regions in Tier III mitigations in order to evaluate viral spread after the Thanksgiving holiday, and ended up keeping the freeze in place until Friday — one two-week incubation period after New Year’s Day and the end of the holiday season, where travel and intimate gatherings among family and friends were inevitable, despite state officials urging Illinoisans to stay home and celebrate virtually.

Exiting Tier III mitigations

In order to step down from Tier III mitigations to Tier II, a region “must experience less than 12 percent test positivity rate for three consecutive days AND greater than 20 percent available intensive care unit (ICU) and hospital bed availability AND declining COVID hospitalizations in 7 out of the last 10 days,” according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

As of Thursday, four regions met those metrics in order to exit Tier III mitigations: Regions 1, 2, 3 and 5. See below for screenshots from IDPH’s website. Positivity rate or hospitalization metrics highlighted in all green means a region is able to step down from mitigations, while red means a region is not meeting those metrics.

Exiting Tier II mitigations

Tier II is the squishiest of Pritzker’s tiered mitigation plan. Regions were put in Tier II mitigations at IDPH’s discretion in the fall, and at least for dining and bar service, there is nearly no meaningful difference between any of the tiers; none allow indoor service, and parties for outdoor service are capped at six people in Tiers II and III.

Stepping down from Tier II mitigations to Tier I mitigations would require a region’s positivity rate (based on a seven-day rolling average) to stay below 8% for three days in a row, with “stable or declining” hospitalization metrics, according to Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh. 

Currently, Regions 3 and 5 appear poised to not only exit Tier III mitigations on Friday, but also Tier II mitigations, landing them at Tier I. 

Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

However, it could be days or even weeks for those regions to then exit Tier I mitigations to go back to Phase 4 of Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan, where indoor dining and bar service is allowed. 

Exiting Tier I mitigations — and reopening indoor dining

Finally, to escape Tier I mitigations a region must experience a positivity rate of 6.5% or less (based on a seven-day rolling average) for three days in a row. Only then will a region return to Phase 4, and its restaurants and bars be allowed to reopen for indoor service. 

For example, after Region 7 triggered Tier I mitigations in August (for having a positivity rate higher than 8% for three days in a row), its positivity rate dipped back below 6.5% after several weeks, allowing Kankakee and Will counties to once again experience indoor dining — at least before the pandemic’s second wave hit in earnest, and triggered ever-more mitigations in October and November. 

Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

Pritzker has repeatedly been asked to revise his mitigation plan to allow for indoor dining sooner. But the governor is not backing off of the plan, calling it successful as recently as Monday.

“In large part, because we acted before Thanksgiving with Tier 3 mitigations, we in Illinois have seen the number of COVID hospital patients and our positivity rates drop by over a third since November 20,” Pritzker said.

When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday called for reopening indoor dining and bar service, Abudayyeh told the Tribune the governor would “look forward to her call” on the matter.

“As the governor announced last week, beginning tomorrow, regions who meet the metrics to go back to lower tiers in the resurgence mitigation plan will be allowed to do so,” the paper quotes Abudayyeh as saying. “Currently, the city of Chicago and Cook County do not meet the metrics to return to previous tiers.”

A few weeks ago, Chicago and suburban Cook — which are labeled state Regions 11 and 10, respectively — met criteria to exit Tier III. But currently, they do not.

Screenshots via Illinois Department of Public Health


Hannah Meisel is a Statehouse reporter for NPR Illinois in Springfield.
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