CHICAGO (WLS) -- Gov. JB Pritzker announced plans Wednesday to partially lift Illinois' indoor mask mandate by the end of February.
Pritzker said Illinois has handled COVID better than almost every other state in the Midwest, in part because people wore their masks. He cited improving hospitalization metrics as the driving force behind his decision to ease the statewide mandate.
"We are now seeing the fastest rate of decline in our COVID-19 hospitalization metrics since the pandemic began," Pritzker said. "If these trends continue, and we expect them to, then on Monday, Feb. 28, we will lift the indoor mask requirement for the state of Illinois."
Pritzker said that local jurisdictions and businesses may still require stricter rules than the state, and must be respected.
WATCH: Gov. Pritzker plans to lift indoor mask mandate in some locations this month
Pritzker said the changes will impact malls, restaurants, bars and places of business, but not schools. Schools are governed by a separate mandate, and will be addressed separately.
"We still have the sensitive locations of K-12 schools, where we have lots of people, who are joined together in smaller spaces, and so that's something that will come weeks hence," Pritzker said Wednesday.
A downstate judge's ruling against the school mandate and the governor's subsequent appeal have led to protests and confusion in districts across the state.
The changes will also not impact congregate settings like prisons or nursing homes, Pritzker said, or healthcare facilities or public transit, which are under a federal mask mandate.
Colleen McNeal is a CTA commuter, who is happy to keep her mask on when riding the L.
"Just because there are rush hours. It's so many people boarding the train. There's limited seating. There's a lot going on, especially on the Green Line, with people smoking and things of that nature," she said.
The governor reinstated the indoor mask mandate in late August after COVID hospitalizations started to rise again. The governor has always said the mask decision was driven by hospitalization data, and hospitalizations statewide have been falling consistently for the past seven days, and by more than 60% statewide in the past month.
Most regions in the area are out of the warning zone, or close to it, for hospital bed availability.
That has been the key metric the governor's office has focused on in making mask mandate decisions.
"Very importantly, things are getting better across the state of Illinois," Pritzker said.
With Democratic governors on the west and east coasts lifting their mask requirements, Pritzker is facing mounting pressure.
Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin wrote him a letter saying in part, "Governor, it has been a long two years and the people deserve to know what you are doing...Your lack of plan has forced people to give up hope that they can ever have a normal life in Illinois."
Even if the statewide mask mandate is lifted, individual municipalities can continue to impose their own rules.
Separate announcements are expected in the coming days from Chicago and suburban counties.
Some business owners are eager for the mandate to be lifted.
The owner of Eggcited Pancake House in Naperville was anticipating this decision, and welcomes it.
"It's a very unpleasant situation to be in as a business owner because, again, we have staff that are not comfortable with it, that want it to be off and then staff that do want to continue to be wearing masks," said Filiz Sav, owner.
She expects some staff and customers may still decide to wear masks, at least for a while.
Moon Rabbit Acupuncture in the West loop has been carefully navigating through the pandemic, complying with any and all COVID safety mandates.
"It's with a big feeling of relief to get back to normal. I think a lot of the other business owners are just gonna be so excited," said Gudrun Snyder, with Moon Rabbit.
With wellness in mind, Owner Snyder still wants her customers to feel comfortable when the mask mandate is lifted.
"If they wanna continue to wear their masks, they should, but people who don't want to once the mask mandate is lifted, we welcome them to come in and show us their smiles," she said.
Some people are still leery, believing the governor was too hasty.
"I will still continue to wear my mask," said Dana Garland. "I will still continue to wash hands and do all the things that prevent others from being sick. I would rather have some protection than none, and I would hope that others follow along."
And medical experts encourage that kind of attitude.
"If you find yourself in a crowded indoor setting, a mask will continue to help protect you," said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. "We will continue to recommend masks as we move forward in a world where we will coexist with COVID."
Restaurant Owner and Chairman of the Illinois Restaurant Association Sam Sanchez said lifting the mask mandate and even the vaccine mandate as quickly as possible is essential to keep more restaurants from closing.
"By removing the mask mandate and the vaccine mandate, our customers will feel comfortable and confident it's safe to come out, and then our business will flourish," he said.
But for parents and guardians of children, especially immunocompromised children, the news about lifting the mandate brings mixed feelings.
"I think it's extremely important for us to take a step back and look at the little children that don't necessarily have a voice, and we have to be an advocate for the younger children, that we should enforce the mask mandate," said Jeannette DuPree, whose son is immunocompromised.
Dupree felt she had no choice but to leave her job to help her son ride out the pandemic, and thinks people should be thinking less about themselves and more about others.
"I would say it is definitely politics and it is a big controversy with masks, and everyone is so caught up on their individual rights and they should have the option of wearing a mask, but we have to protect the young children," she said.
University of Chicago Medicine's Dr. Anna Volerman agreed, saying too often policy has been determined by what's best for adults.
"I think the reality is, we are taking away mask mandates without a true metric, right; they are just decisions that are being made," she said.
But others, who have been careful about exposing their little ones from the outset of the pandemic, do not see looser masking rules as a burden.
"We are probably going to be moving to a suburb soon and it might be unavoidable, just getting more exposure without masks, especially as he enters preschool," said Tom Adduci, father of a 2-year-old. "I'm not terribly worried about it. I haven't heard that children of this age are really seeing too many adverse effects of COVID."
Medical experts worry mask mandate will be lifted too soon
ICU beds are empty again at St. Anthony Hospital, but not long ago the community hospital on the border of North Lawndale and Little Village was full of COVID patients.
"Even though cases have gone down recently, it was devastating over the holidays, we saw rises and so many deaths," said nurse supervisor Fabian Vigil.
Vigil has been on the front lines for the entire pandemic and is concerned lifting the mandate will result in another surge.
"You would almost think we would be immune to it but it still hurts," he said. "Every COVID death, it affects us in a different way, every time."
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Alfredo Mena-Lora said if mask mandates are going away, more people must get vaccinated. Until then, masks remain prudent.
"We are still nationwide at a point where there are 2,000 cases, 2,000 deaths a day, and it's primarily folks who are unvaccinated," he said.
Pediatric specialists are worried about children 5 and under who can't get vaccinated yet, and immunocompromised patients.
"I understand people are tired of wearing masks, I'm tired of wearing masks, I think people want to get back to normal, unfortunately the virus doesn't care what we want," said Dr. Taylor Heald-Sargent, Lurie Children's Hospital.
Many on the front lines say we are not yet out of the woods and suggest holding onto our masks a bit longer.