On a Saturday in late March of last year, employees walked out of public libraries carrying plants and boxes of personal items, parents and young children took one last chance to run around in playgrounds, and the streets began emptying.
Chicagoans were preparing for the state’s stay-at-home order, which officially took effect at 5 p.m. on March 21, 2020.
More than a year later, Illinois and Chicago are scheduled to fully reopen on Friday, marking an emotional turning point in the pandemic for many who have endured loss and a lack of connection in public life.
Among Friday’s milestones: The Cubs’ home game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field will mark the first time a Chicago baseball game will be played in front of a full crowd since the beginning of the pandemic. The White Sox plan to open to full capacity on June 25.
Though the city and state have moved through different phases of curtailing and restoring activity since the initial stay-at-home order, Friday’s reopening also will be the first time there are no capacity restrictions or social distancing mandates for businesses and personal gatherings.
“I have gotten together with my family and I have to say, that’s a wonderful feeling to be connected again to people,” said Dr. Susan Bleasdale, an infectious disease physician at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System. “I think this is exciting as long as we are careful and cautious and continue to follow data.”
Doctors like Bleasdale who have been on the front lines of the pandemic since the beginning say that COVID-19 is still here and poses a risk to unvaccinated people and people for whom the vaccine is less effective. For the most part, though, they say the data supports reaching the full reopening, known as Phase 5, while encouraging everyone to take precautions when necessary and to get the vaccine.
There were 366 new and probable cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and a seven-day statewide positivity rate of around 1%, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The health department is also reporting 764 people in hospitals with COVID-19, including 209 people in intensive care units and 103 people on ventilators, among the lowest counts since the pandemic began, according to a news release.
Meanwhile, about 50% of the state’s eligible population is fully vaccinated, and 60% have received at least one shot, according to data from the agency.
In Phase 5, there are no capacity limits for bars and restaurants, gyms, offices, salons, museums and other work, social and recreational venues. The Tribune has a comprehensive guide to Phase 5 here.
Health departments in Illinois and Chicago don’t have any social distancing rules, but the state still encourages businesses to support social distancing. Businesses may also have their own rules for capacity, masking and social distancing.
Some bars reported they aren’t rushing to reach 100% occupancies or even opening at all, citing the need to hire more employees and to feel out the comfort of customers.
“I don’t think — and nobody else thinks on the management team — that we should just go back to that,” said James Oppedisano, the third-generation owner of Hala Kahiki tiki bar in River Grove. “We think people will feel more comfortable with a little more room.”
Other establishments, though, said they are ready.
“We’ll try to pack the house as much as we can,” said Cindy Perreault, manager of Here’s Cheers in Niles, which plans to return to its pre-pandemic capacity Friday. “It’s been really hard to run a business when the bar is three-quarters empty.”
Some entertainment venues said they plan to only slowly move toward 100% capacity. The nation’s largest move theater chain, AMC, will continue to block some seats. Major Chicago museums will likely gradually increase capacity over time, several told the Tribune.
Masks are still required on public transportation, in airports, at schools, in hospitals and in some other congregate settings.
But signs that the city is coming back to life have been emerging in recent months.
Major Chicago fixtures like Lollapalooza and the Chicago Marathon are planned this year after being cancelled or held virtually last year. People are beginning to plan bigger weddings, and city beaches are crowded again after being closed last year.
“I’m happy to see us coming close to returning to normalcy,” said Dr. Michelle Prickett, pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
But Prickett has cared for hundreds of patients in the hospital’s COVID ICU. Due to that experience, she also fears complacency.
“I’ll be honest with you, I have some reservations, having seen the brunt of it,” she said. “What we’re still seeing are cases predominantly in the unvaccinated. If we let up with vaccination efforts, we could be moving in the wrong direction.”
The United States now appears unlikely to reach President Joe Biden’s goal of partially vaccinating at least 70% of people by the Fourth of July, according to The Associated Press. Federal, state and local governments are looking for ways to address vaccine hesitancy.
For some who are still wary, particularly those with young children who cannot yet be vaccinated, doctors say people can still make personal risk assessments about what they will and won’t do.
“I think it’s going to take us a little bit of time to feel comfortable again,” Prickett said. “That’s normal.”
But doctors noted that we’ve learned how to protect ourselves in the past year.
“I think it is a reasonable time right now to open and just encourage those who are unvaccinated and those who are not fully protected by vaccines to still use measures like masking and distancing,” Bleasdale said.
Making connections to other people is important for a healthy society too, she said.
“I have a sense of nervousness but I also have a sense of relief,” she said.
Tribune reporters Doug George, Meghan Montemurro and Michael Phillips contributed.