CHICAGO - When the first customer in line at MacArthur's restaurant pulled down his mask to mug for a camera Friday, the establishment's manager immediately ordered him to put it back on.
"I'm not playing," said Vanessa Cobbins, whose father, Mac Alexander, founded the beloved Black-owned Southern food cafeteria in the South Austin neighborhood.
That vigilance reflects the high stakes for people statewide as Illinois significantly loosens restrictions aimed at blunting the spread of COVID-19. After nearly three months of sacrifice and solitude, no one wants to see the state backslide into another lockdown.
"We're so grateful for the business," said MacArthur's manager Maurice Gaiter, as he kept a watchful eye on the lunchtime crowd to ensure patrons were adhering to public health regulations. "What we're doing now is our very best to comply with the social distancing to keep everyone safe."
All four regions of the state as designated in Gov. J.B. Pritzker's "Restore Illinois" reopening plan moved into the fourth of five phases Friday, with gatherings of up to 50 people allowed and some recreational opportunities restored.
For the first time since mid-March, residents are now permitted to dine inside restaurants, go to the movies and work out at the local gym. They also can bowl, take a yoga class, grab a drink at the bar, visit zoos and attend summer camps.
These renewed freedoms, however, come with a caveat from public health officials: It all can be taken away again if there is a spike in confirmed coronavirus cases or hospitalization rates.
"I'm not afraid to protect the people of Illinois by moving a region back to an earlier phase if we see a surge," Pritzker said Thursday. "Ours will not be one of the states that takes no action in response to a return to the peak."
Such is phase four in Illinois.
Even with their best behavior, Illinoisans may be there awhile.
The governor intends to keep the state in phase four until there is a COVID-19 vaccine, "an effective and widely available treatment" or new cases cease over a sustained period of time. Once that happens, Illinois can enter the fifth and final stage - a return to normalcy when large sporting events, concerts and festivals can take place.
As Illinois cautiously entered the penultimate phase, public health officials announced 857 new cases and 39 reported deaths on Friday. The statewide positivity rate remained at 3%, less than half the national rate.
The available data continues to show no significant spikes in COVID-19 cases following protests over police killings of African Americans. Chicago was averaging about 400 confirmed cases a day when the protests began, and that number has since dropped to under 160 a day.
"On paper, everything looks good," said Dr. Rachel Rubin, senior medical officer with the Cook County Public Health Department. "My concern is that there has become a high level of quarantine or stay-at-home fatigue. Vigilance has to remain high as we open up. I wonder how much patience people have. ... I wonder if people realize that this is a new normal. We're not going back to the way things were before."
Experts expect it to be many months, or longer, before the Chicago area meets the standards for a complete reopening. For a population that has largely confronted pandemic-related restrictions in 30-day increments, the long-term potential of phase four - with its limited gatherings, mask requirements during the hot summer and restricted recreation options - could prove particularly daunting over an extended period of time.
"We need to help each other maintain this vigilance and respect for the guidelines," Rubin said. "That's the only way we'll get through this phase."
It's a delicate issue for a lot of Chicagoans, many of whom have different views on how to reengage with the world after being grounded for three months. Even among friends who take the virus seriously, there can be disagreement on how to best avoid a resurgence like those currently seen in Arizona, Florida and Texas.
Amy Renfro and her wife, Lauren, had planned to attend several concerts this summer - Elton John, Fall Out Boy, The Darkness, Green Day - but instead find their activities limited to essential trips like their Target run Friday. From the couple's perspective, phase four feels like the floodgates are opening and emboldening people to make more dangerous choices.
"We know people who are like, 'Things are fine now,'" Lauren said.
"People are like, 'Who needs masks now?'" Amy said. "It's frustrating and anxiety-ridden."
To the north, a knock on Libertyville resident Brian Lawton's front door Friday morning - the first in about four months - served as a reminder of the dilemmas people will face as the state reopens.
"Can Nolan come out and play?" a neighborhood kid asked, inviting Lawton's 8-year-old son.
Lawton doesn't want to ostracize his kids or expose them to danger, but he said they'll continue to follow stricter guidelines than the government currently has set. Even as birthday parties and social gatherings are becoming more frequent, his family is not eating out or attending group playdates.
"In the neighborhood there are some who are a little lax, and it makes it a little more difficult because we're holding them back a little more," Lawton said. "It makes it more difficult keeping everyone on the same page. I think about it a lot. With all the kids in the neighborhood, I don't know where they've been. I don't know who they've contacted and who they've contacted has contacted and going down that daisy chain down the line."
Public health experts warn phase four will only prove successful if people remain as observant as they have been the past three months. That means continuing to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and maintain a 6-foot social distance whenever possible.
"We took the appropriate measures in Illinois to prevent the spread of the disease, and it worked because we followed those guidelines," said Dr. Terrill Applewhite, chairman of the Roseland Community Hospital's COVID-19 task force. "In some of the other states that did not practice those measures, you're now seeing a rapid spread of the disease. People need to understand that these safety measures - masks, social distancing, reduced capacity - are in place for a reason."
Those regulations, however, have severely tested the restaurant industry, which saw inside dining banned for more than 100 days. The lockdown was financially devastating to establishments, many of which laid off employees or, in some cases, closed permanently.
During phase four, indoor dining will be allowed at restricted levels. Many restaurants also will continue to take advantage of laxed rules on outdoor seating and carryout cocktails to boost sales.
Even so, the National Restaurant Association predicts between 20% and 25% of restaurants statewide will not reopen. That would mean about 125,000 hospitality jobs lost in Illinois because of the pandemic, industry experts said.
Raul Pacheco hopes phase four means he can get his job back as a server at a West Loop restaurant. He's been working part-time for about two months in delivery, but it's not as fulfilling or financially beneficial.
"We need to work," Pacheco said. "I hear people who lose their houses, their apartments they get kicked out. I hope I can return to work. Thank God I could find this other (job)."
A prolonged phase four could prove difficult for dining establishments, particularly if the current indoor capacity restrictions remain in place as the weather gets colder. Pritzker and Chicago officials have indicated they are willing to further loosen the rules if the public health situation continues to improve.
A reversal that leads to another lockdown, however, would bring the industry to its knees, Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia said.
For restaurants to survive, Toia said, everyone needs to follow the public health protocols.
"We're all in this together: The restaurant owner-operator and the guests. That means social distancing, face masks and sanitizer. When you go into a restaurant, you wear your face mask. When you sit at the table, you take it off. When you get up to go to the restroom, you put it back on," Toia said. "We have to get our heads around that, or we will be in even deeper trouble."
As they ate outside at Pierce Tavern in suburban Downers Grove, diners JoAnn and Mike Monahan had no problem with those terms or patronizing restaurants again.
"If a little bit of discomfort is the price to pay, so be it," Mike Monahan said. "Now in January, when there's no outside dining, I might feel differently."
(Chicago Tribune's John Keilman, Kasondra Van Treeck and Steve Johnson contributed.)
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