URBANA — With COVID-19 cases surging across Illinois, one local retailer wasn’t surprised to learn that the state will require masks again in all indoor public places starting Monday.
“I think we saw it coming,” said Van Boyd, manager at the Heel to Toe shoe store in downtown Urbana.
Store employees never stopped wearing masks, Boyd said, and since COVID-19 cases began rising again, customers have been asked to do likewise.
What stands to have more of an impact on Heel to Toe’s business than masks, Boyd said, is increased fear among some older customers of going out again while COVID-19 transmission is high and the fact that even those who are vaccinated have been advised to resume precautions, according to Boyd.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the mask mandate Thursday. It will apply to everyone, regardless of vaccination status.
Along with that, the governor issued a new vaccine mandate for all health care workers, nursing-home employees, pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade teachers and staff, and higher-education personnel and students, with the first dose received by Sept. 5. Those who don’t comply will be required to undergo COVID-19 testing once a week.
Schools were already under a mask mandate issued by the governor earlier this month.
Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent Lindsey Hall said she expects that — like all things related to the pandemic — there will be a mixed reaction to the vaccine mandate.
While some staff members may opt to submit to weekly testing rather than get the vaccine, she said, any increase in the vaccination rate is good.
“I think any increase in the vaccinated population is a good thing, so if people go out and get vaccinated because of this mandate, my personal opinion is that is excellent,” she said.
Unity Superintendent Andy Larson said he was meeting with school nurses Thursday afternoon to come up with a gameplan for the new mandate.
“We will make things as painless as possible for our people, but this will continue to polarize people with continued dictation on our lives,” he said. “It is not super fun to be a school administrator or school nurse right now.”
Urbana school board President Paul Poulosky said administrators and union leaders had already discussed vaccination and testing for staff and reached an agreement to require vaccination or twice-a-week testing for those not vaccinated.
The vaccination rate among district employees is already high, Poulosky said, with 87 percent of staff and 90.5 percent of certified teachers fully vaccinated.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association also quickly issued a statement supporting the mask mandate.
“We ask all customers to abide by this public health order in a respectful manner,” the group urged. “We strongly encourage local law-enforcement agencies to promptly assist us in ensuring employees are not subjected to verbal and physical abuse, as we have seen in the past, and call on local health departments to enforce this order in uniform fashion.”
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, which revoked health permits and went to court with restaurants that defied a state ban on indoor dining service last year, also stands behind the new mandates.
Deputy Administrator Awais Vaid said universal masking should have been adopted as soon as the highly infectious delta variant began fueling surges in new cases last month.
Local officials have already seen more people wearing masks in stores even without a mandate, he said.
And while those employees who are now required to get vaccinated may opt instead for weekly testing, Vaid said, “I think every individual getting vaccinated does help.”
He also believes as more public employees are required to get vaccinated, more private employers — who have money on the line — will begin requiring vaccination for their employees.
“Vaccinations, universal masking and regular testing as a screening tool is going to be critical for the next two months to bring our numbers down,” Vaid said.
He also said if organizers of the many community events coming up want to have a positive impact, they’ll require masks even for outdoor events where large groups are gathering.
Dan Church, one of the owners of The Venue CU in downtown Champaign, said customers have been understanding about requirements to keep everyone safe.
This wedding and events venue has continued to make masks available in the entryway, he said, and a sign letting customers know masks are now required will again be posted, Church said.
“In the end, if it’s required by our state and our city, we certainly want to help the cause,” he said. “We want to get past it as much as anyone does.”
Rhonda Lutz, owner of Old Orchard Lanes & Links in Savoy, has seen customers’ reactions to previous mandates throughout the pandemic.
“I really have no idea how they’re going to react to it this time,” she said.
She doesn’t want to see anyone get sick, Lutz said. But she also thinks some people may be against a mask mandate if they’re fully vaccinated and thought their days of wearing masks were over.
“We have a lot of older clientele,” she said. “So they just want to come and be with people. It’s their way to get out and communicate with everyone else.”
Pritzker said the new mandates are needed as COVID-19 cases surge and hospital capacity dwindles. From January through July, 98 percent of Illinois’ cases, 96 percent of hospitalizations and 95 percent of deaths have been among unvaccinated people, he said.
In East Central Illinois’ Region 6, 28 of 143 hospital ICU beds were available as of the end of the day Wednesday, while southern Illinois’ Region 5 had just six ICU beds open.
Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Coles County announced Thursday that it had activated its internal disaster plan due to the continuing surge of patients seeking care.
That hospital’s nine-bed critical unit was full, and its emergency department — which typically treats 80 to 100 patients a day — has been treating about 130 people a day in recent weeks, hospital officials said.
The hospital has placed an air-conditioned tent just outside its emergency department to care for up to six COVID-19 patients who are less seriously sick, and in an effort to free up beds sooner, some patients who are discharged will wait for rides home at the hospital’s Lumpkin Education Center, officials said.