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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday that at the end of the month he will lift the requirement for face coverings to be worn in most indoor spaces to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the mandate will stay in place for K-12 schools where students, teachers and staff are clustered together.

“Whether you’re wearing a mask or not everyone deserves to protect themselves in whatever way they choose to,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker said masks will no longer be required to enter restaurants, grocery stores or other indoor spaces. The Democratic governor cited plummeting hospitalization numbers three weeks after the omicron variant had peaked in the state, and he praised residents for getting vaccinated and following face-covering rules.

“Vaccines work. Masks work,” Pritzker said. “And a result of them and the tremendous commitment of our state’s residents, we are on track to come out on the other side of this latest COVID storm in better shape than even the doctors expected.”

Although the change in policy doesn’t apply to schools, the Democratic governor has appealed a circuit court ruling last week that found he had overstepped by requiring face coverings for in-person learning.

Vaccination rates in schools are lower, it’s harder to keep an appropriate distance in hallways and classrooms and outbreaks in schools can spread quickly through a community, Pritzker said.

“The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population,” he said. “Schools need a little more time for community infection rates to drop for our youngest learners to become vaccine eligible and more parents to get kids vaccinated.”

Reporters had pressed Pritzker in recent days about whether he would ease Illinois’ mask mandate as other states have done lately, including New York. Pritzker said Wednesday that he’s hopeful Illinois will join other Democratic states soon.

“In the coming weeks, it’s my hope we’ll continue making progress to a point where we can remove school masking and keep kids in school,” Pritzker said.

Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurants Association, weighed in Pritzker’s announcement, saying the move is promising.

“It’s a very, very encouraging sign today that we heard from the governor that the mask mandate is being lifted,” Toia said. “This is another step to being back to normalcy. It’s been a rough two years on restaurants here in the city of Chicago throughout our 77 neighborhoods.”

During the worst of the surge in cases involving the omicron variant, hospitalizations soared to a peak of 7,320 the week ending Jan. 14. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported an average of 29,500 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 that day.

Last week, with an average of 7,320 cases daily, the hospitalizations dropped to 3,135; Pritzker said it’s now about 2,500.

Since late January 2020, when the virus first crossed into Illinois, it has sickened 2.96 million people, taking the lives of 31,296 as of last week.

Pritzker had scheduled a Wednesday afternoon briefing on the COVID-19 situation in Illinois where he was expected to explain the change in rules in more detail.

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