CHICAGO (WLS) -- Illinois and Chicago have entered Phase 5 and are fully reopen, with nearly all COVID restrictions lifted.
Chicago is now the largest city in the country to fully reopen. As of Friday, there are no capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms, or other large venues and no social distancing requirements.
Masks are still required on public transportation, in airports, at schools, in hospitals and in some other congregate settings. However, businesses can make their own rules when it comes to masking and distancing.
The state is still battling COVID, but the latest case numbers are low enough to reopen safely.
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Gov. JB Pritzker said in a statement Thursday: "I invite all Illinoisans to feel the hope and joy of this moment while also recognizing that this pandemic is still very present for the world at large... As we take this next step forward, let's do so with a renewed commitment to empathy, to community, and to making each day together count. You did it, Illinois."
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady and other city leaders spoke on the reopening Friday morning outside Gibsons Italia.
"Due to the incredible progress we've made in our mission to stop the spread of COVID-19, I am thrilled to announce that we are able to safely transition into Phase 5 and become the first major city in the country to fully reopen," said Mayor Lightfoot. "Our ongoing vaccination efforts, which prioritize equity and inclusion, have made a remarkable difference in our COVID-19 journey and have resulted in the lowest positivity rate since the beginning of the pandemic. This progress, as well as ongoing initiatives such as Open Chicago, have allowed us to safely lift capacity limits and reconnect our residents back to the activities they love the most. With today's announcement and even more residents continuing to do their part and get vaccinated, we are one step closer to being able to put this pandemic in our rearview mirror."
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Chicago is celebrating by partnering with Raise Marketplace and World Business Chicago to give away hundreds of gift cards through July 4. The $250 gift cards will be hidden at locations in all 77 of Chicago's neighborhoods to encourage people to get back to local businesses. The gift cards can be used on Raise Marketplace at more than 4,000 shops and restaurants in the city.
The city also announced that they have partnered with Lollapalooza to give away 1,000 one-day passes to people who are fully vaccinated. This of course meant to incentivize people to get the vaccine.
Both the mayor and Dr. Arwady pointed out that while we may be able to fully reopen the pandemic is not over. And that at the moment the vast majority of new infections and hospitalizations recorded, over 97% are among those who are not fully vaccinated.
"It's absolutely refreshing to be able to greet everyone with their full face and bring them in," said Johnny Ford, Shedd Aquarium. "We were closed for over 200 days last year."
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The Shedd Aquarium is among those welcoming people back at full capacity. They planned to stay open late Friday night along with several other museums to celebrate.
Phase 5 is also great news for the hard-hit hospitality industry, even as they admit it will take time to get back to normal.
"I think it could take a good year and a half, two years. What we need is to get our conventions back, our tourism back. Because it's all about guests in beds and diners in seats," said Sam Toia, Illinois Restaurant Association.
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For now though, there is optimism with over 60% of the state's eligible population vaccinated and the push to improve those numbers ongoing.
"We've seen this go reasonably well, when there's been a vaccine available across the U.S. I think when you look internationally, and you've seen some of this resurgence it's been in countries that have had very little vaccine available," Arwady said.
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Small restaurant owners are feeling some relief as those restrictions are gone. Tom Konstantopoulos, owner of Omega restaurant in Niles, said during the shutdown, he wanted to keep his employees working, so they remodeled, added partitions between tables, brought in sanitizing stations and more.
"We have upgraded our makeup air systems, we've upgraded the motors, we've replaced the motors, we've replaced belts, we added two new units upstairs to bring more fresh air into the restaurant so we feel that the size of the restaurant and the new units make it very, very safe," Konstantopoulos said.
Slowly, customers came back at a limited amount. The regulars did the best they can to show their support.
"The family-owned businesses to recover in a pandemic like this is, is very difficult in all facets and to bring it back and stimulate the economy is great for everybody," customer Alex Zobel said.
Konstantopoulos said they will ease into reopening, and not fill the restaurant up right away.
A few miles away in Skokie, things are also coming back to life. The park district fitness center can reopen to full capacity, requiring masks for the unvaccinated and their pool will return to full capacity on Monday, just in time for kids to enjoy cooling off in this heat wave, with masks required for people not fully vaccinated.
For David Velde, it was a no-brainer. He got vaccinated as soon as he could so he can head back inside restaurants more comfortably and move on.
"For me, once I had the vaccine, the pandemic was over," Velde said.