Chicgo, coronavirus, pandemic.
Chicago’s response to the pandemic has evolved over time. The current plan includes mask mandates, social distancing, testing, and vaccination mandates to enter certain locations. Photo credit: Raed Mansour / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As the coronavirus continues to surprise us with new variants, many folks are flummoxed by mandates and protocols that are vague, confusing, and changing daily. In this series, our correspondents around the country report on their region’s messaging and management of the latest stage of the pandemic. 


In the southwest suburbs of Chicago, COVID-19 protocols and rules haven’t changed much in response to omicron. There is still a mask mandate for indoor public places in Illinois, but stores here don’t require masks — though they’re usually “strongly recommended” — and I’ve noticed a handful of people not wearing them inside. Most local schools are still open, while many churches have temporarily closed. 

In Chicago itself, however, rules are stricter. On January 3, the city mandated that “any individual age 5 and older will be required to show proof of vaccination to dine indoors, visit gyms, or enjoy entertainment venues where food or drink are being served.” An ID is also required for those 16 and older. I’ve visited the city twice since the mandate began, and I had to show proof of vaccination and an ID to get into an art exhibit, a restaurant, the city orchestra, and a bar. For me, the experience was relatively painless and certainly made me feel safer than the alternative.

But the mandate is not well-received by all. On January 12, the Chicago Tribune reported that restaurants on the city’s largely white North Side, where vaccination rates are around 75 percent, have mostly embraced the mandate and not suffered much economically from their pre-mandate business.

Restaurants on the South Side, though — where most residents are Black and several

neighborhoods have vaccination rates under 50 percent — saw their business decline in the first days of the mandate. It’s understandable that Black people are more skeptical of the shots, given this country’s fraught history with the health care system’s treatment of Black people. 

It’s also frustrating to see this city once again being divided along racial lines with this vaccine mandate. Racial disparities in vaccination levels in Chicago have persisted since the vaccine has been available, while looking further back also shows that Chicagoans of color have died of the virus at higher rates and struggled more with remote learning.

Chicago also made national headlines in early January for five days of class cancellations in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), following a dispute between the city and the teachers’ union over COVID-19 protections. CPS officials cancelled classes entirely after the union voted to teach remotely until stronger protections were put in place, amplifying increasingly negative views of the Chicago Teachers’ Union. Ironically, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a frequent opponent of the union and increasingly embattled figure, tested positive for the virus on January 12, the day students returned to schools throughout the city. 

Even as the pandemic and another midwest winter drag on, though, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady predicted Tuesday that vaccine and mask mandates will be gone “quite soon” if the city’s level of transmission continues to drop. Despite these challenging times, Chicagoans have some hope in sight after all.  


  • Laura Schultz

    Laura Schultz is based in Chicago, Illinois. She is a social media manager and reporter for WhoWhatWhy, covering the environment, climate change, energy, and sustainability.

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