The Illinois State Board of Education on Wednesday adopted a resolution requiring daily in-person learning next school year with limited exceptions for remote learning. Several parents speaking at the ISBE meeting had implored the board to reject the proposal, in part to account for children who may still be too young to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Though some board members expressed reservations about the resolution’s language during an hourlong discussion, they voted unanimously in favor. Their concerns, however, raise questions about options left for families in the absence of pandemic-related allowances, such as when Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s disaster proclamation lifts.
Meanwhile, two of the largest Chicago hotels that closed early in the COVID-19 pandemic are preparing to reopen next month, a sign of hope for the battered downtown hospitality industry.
Here’s what’s happening Thursday with COVID-19 in the Chicago area:
6 p.m.: Illinois will repay Fed loans with state funds, dropping appeal over rules on the use of federal coronavirus relief
Illinois will tap state coffers to repay roughly $2 billion in remaining debt on emergency coronavirus loans from the Federal Reserve, abandoning plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money, state officials said Thursday.
Illinois was the only state to borrow from the special Fed program, taking out two loans totaling $3.2 billion to plug holes in the past two state budgets. Officials had hoped to pay off the state’s remaining balance with a portion of the $8.1 billion in relief funds the state is receiving from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
5:30 p.m.: After a devastating 15 months, downtown Chicago’s 5 largest hotels to be open by late June
Downtown Chicago’s five largest hotels are expected to be back in business within the next month, more than a year after three of those properties went dark because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of those behemoths, the 1,544-room Hilton Chicago, on Thursday said it will reopen June 10.
Earlier this week, the Tribune reported downtown’s second- and fifth-largest hotels plan to resume business next month. The 1,214-room Sheraton Grand plans to reopen June 7, and the 1,641-room Palmer House Hilton is set to follow June 17.
The largest and fourth-largest hotels, the 2,032-room Hyatt Regency Chicago and the 1,258-room Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, have remained open in a limited capacity even though many hotels and businesses shut down in March 2020.
4 p.m.: Nearly 90% of CTA train stations to undergo improvements in attempt to lure riders back
Nearly all CTA “L” stations are slated to be freshened up this year as part of an effort to draw riders back after the pandemic slashed the transit agency’s ridership.
The CTA pledged to accelerate improvements to more than 125 of its 145 rail stations, nearly 90% of the system’s rail stations, according to a news release, with each station to be repainted and power washed this year at a minimum. Nearly a third of the identified stations in the “Refresh & Renew” program announced Wednesday will undergo more extensive maintenance, including upgraded lighting, concrete repairs and improved amenities such as trash bins and benches.
Some stations will also receive behind-the-scenes repairs to utility and plumbing lines.
“Refresh & Renew is our way of rolling out the welcome mat for our returning riders,” CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. said in the release. “Clean and well-maintained stations are an important part of our commitment to providing a comfortable transit experience.”
Ridership on the CTA and Metra remains at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. As of Monday, CTA buses and trains were carrying about one-third of the pre-pandemic numbe rof riders, spokesman Brian Steele previously told the Tribune.
2:30 p.m.: Maker of famed Chicago flag mask pivots back to marching band uniforms as demand for masks plummets
The company behind the ubiquitous Chicago flag mask had already decided to wrap up its online retail mask sales when federal health officials dropped a bombshell.
Vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most settings.
Sales of masks at PrideMasks.com, the retail site set up by R&S Marching Arts, had been declining since a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, president Alan Spaeth said. Mask-making was a crowded field by the middle of last summer, and sales were down by the time vaccinations began in January, which in turn depressed demand significantly, he said.
But when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its mask guidance earlier this month, it was like a switch had been flipped.
“Literally the next day there were no orders,” Spaeth said. “It was almost overnight, which tells you people are ready to be done with the mask-wearing.”
Like many small companies, R&S Marching Arts was forced to get creative early in the pandemic as its regular business — making marching band uniforms, parade costumes, banners and flags — dried up.
1:55 p.m.: DuSable Museum of African American History announces Juneteenth reopening
The DuSable Museum of African American History will reopen on Juneteenth, June 19, for the first time since shutting down in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The reopening will kick off with a welcome back ceremony at 11 a.m., featuring community leaders and elected officials. The DuSable will offer free admission from June 19 through the rest of the month. (Juneteenth is a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.)
During this first phase of reopening, the museum will operate at limited capacity to maintain social distancing and will adhere to other health guidelines provided by the state of Illinois and city of Chicago for museums.
1:50 p.m.: US jobless claims decline to a new pandemic low; many states cutting benefits but Pritzker opposes move
The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid fell last week to 444,000, a new pandemic low and a sign that the job market keeps strengthening as consumers spend freely again, viral infections drop and business restrictions ease.
Thursday’s report from the Labor Department showed that applications declined 34,000 from a revised 478,000 a week earlier. The number of weekly jobless claims — a rough measure of the pace of layoffs — has declined steadily since the year began.
The data release coincides with rapid moves by nearly all the nation’s Republican governors to cut off a $300-a-week federal unemployment benefit that they and many business executives blame for discouraging the unemployed from seeking jobs. Those cutoffs of federal jobless aid will begin in June.
Twenty-two states, from Texas and Georgia to Ohio and Iowa, have acted to block the federal government’s $300 weekly payment for the unemployed, according to an Associated Press analysis. Two more states, Florida and Kansas, are considering doing so. Those 24 states all have Republican governors and state legislatures.
In addition, 35 states have reinstated a requirement that jobless aid recipients search for work in order to keep receiving benefits. That requirement had been suspended at the start of the pandemic, when many businesses were closed and Americans were encouraged to stay at home.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said he doesn’t support ending the extra federal unemployment benefits or reinstating job search requirements because there are people who have “legitimate reasons for remaining on unemployment” that are directly related to the pandemic.
Read more here. —Associated Press; Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed
1:40 p.m.: In wake of COVID-19′s impact, Illinois lawmakers to consider nursing home funding plan aimed at increasing staffing, improving care
Illinois officials are calling for a fundamental shift in how the state pays nursing homes, a move they say will increase staffing and improve care — instead of increasing profits.
The effort is also aimed at reducing disparities by which the COVID-19 pandemic hit Black and Latino Medicaid patients disproportionately among nursing home residents, who overall made up more than 40% of all COVID-19-related deaths.
A proposed law to require the changes was introduced Wednesday in the General Assembly. Advocates hope to pass the bill before the spring session concludes at the end of May, but a group representing nursing home operators has raised concerns about the measure.
The stakes are high for both the health care of vulnerable residents and for tax dollars spent. Each year, Illinois spends about $2.5 billion to help take care of 45,000 nursing home residents. Medicaid, by far the largest single payer, covers about 60% of nursing home care.
1:20 p.m.: Cubs president Jed Hoyer is upset his team hasn’t hit the 85% vaccine mark
Chicago Cubs president Jed Hoyer didn’t mince words Thursday, calling his team’s failure to get 85% of Tier 1 employees fully vaccinated “disappointing,” and agreeing the team would be at a competitive disadvantage if they don’t reach the goal.
“It’s disappointing to not be at 85% as a team,” Hoyer said on a teleconference before the game against the Washington Nationals. “We’ve worked hard to get as many people vaccinated as possible. It’s hard to try and convince or educate the people who have been reluctant.
“I think we’re at a place now, candidly, I’m not going to give up hope that we can get there, but my level of optimism is waning, candidly.”
About half of the league’s 32 teams — including the White Sox — are already past the 85% mark and have had protocols relaxed. Hoyer pointed to the “conveniences” of having those relaxed protocols, including managers and coaches being able to shed masks in the dugout, players dining out together and eliminating the contract-tracing element.
Hoyer called it “a real competitive advantage we’re going to miss.”
“I don’t want to directly refute that,” Hoyer said of Arrieta’s remark. “I just said it was a competitive advantage to be at 85%.”
12:12 p.m.: 89,832 administered vaccine doses, 1,542 new cases and 42 deaths reported Thursday
Illinois public health officials on Thursday reported 1,542 new probable and confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 42 deaths. That brings the state’s totals to 1,371,884 cases and 22,536 deaths.
There were 79,529 tests reported in the previous 24 hours and the seven-day statewide positivity rate as a percent of total test is 2.2%.
There were 89,832 doses of the vaccine administered Wednesday and the seven-day rolling average of daily doses is 65,998. The state says 38.74% of the population has been fully vaccinated, including 47% of adults, and that 64% of adults have received at least one vaccine dose.
9:38 a.m.: Home offices have become essential during the pandemic. But are they worth the investment?
Home offices have joined pantries, mudrooms and laundry rooms as essential parts of the home during the pandemic.
Some homeowners have turned to clever carpentry and new furnishings to convert existing space into offices, while others have constructed completely new work areas. But while setting up a home office is an investment in productivity, it may not always be worth the financial commitment.
Market analyses by both Zillow, the online marketing platform, and Redfin, a Seattle-based national residential real estate brokerage, indicate that listings that specifically mention offices sell for nearly their full asking price, but experts say the high cost of construction materials means adding an office doesn’t always boost the home’s value on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
Nationally, the number of listings highlighting home offices zoomed by 48.5% last fall, said Amanda Pendleton, home trends expert for Seattle-based Zillow. “This is a valuable asset and if you have it in your home, you want to advertise it,” she said.
“But in terms of commanding a price advantage, home offices only correlate with 0.6% more than the asking price. Don’t tack on a home office, because the return might not be there,” Pendleton said.
8:12 a.m.: Masks no longer required in Wisconsin government buildings beginning June 1
New guidance from Gov. Tony Evers’ administration says people vaccinated for COVID-19 will no longer be required to wear masks in the state Capitol and most other state facilities beginning on June 1.
The updated guidance for state government follows advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that those who are fully vaccinated can go without masks and can forgo social distancing for most indoor and outdoor activities.
The new state recommendations say all unvaccinated individuals, including both state employees and members of the public, should continue to wear face coverings while in state facilities. Also, unvaccinated employees are required to wear masks in other enclosed buildings while on state business.
The Department of Administration advises that state employees are encouraged to work from home through at least July 4.
7:45 a.m.: Navy Pier enters second phase of reopening
Navy Pier’s the indoor hallways and spaces were scheduled to reopen Thursday, with select businesses and retail stores following, as the second phase of the pier’s planned reopening, according to pier officials.
The pier is scheduled to be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, according to the pier’s website.
The phased reopening continuing Thursday has “the goal of being fully open by Memorial Day weekend,” according to a news release earlier this week.
The pier already is holding Saturday fireworks shows, and was expected to start offering them on Wednesdays, as was done for years before the pandemic, staring after Memorial Day.
6 a.m.: Vaccinated Nats player tests positive for COVID-19
An unidentified Washington Nationals player who is vaccinated and asymptomatic has tested positive for COVID-19, manager Dave Martinez said Wednesday.
That player was deemed to have been in close contact with another Nationals player who is not vaccinated. Martinez said neither player would have been in the starting lineup against the Chicago Cubs and neither was available off the bench.
The Nationals placed right-handed pitchers Erick Fedde and Tanner Rainey on the injured list before the game. Righties Kyle McGowin and Paolo Espina were activated from Washington’s taxi squad.
When either affected player might return is unclear. Martinez thought the vaccinated player, who he said “feels fine,” might be available in a few days. The unvaccinated player may need to quarantine.
Washington players were tested for COVID-19 on Monday.
6 a.m.: Oooh Wee It Is in Chatham features rare cereals and pot roast cupcakes. The line’s been out the door since March.
Oooh Wee It Is opens every day except Monday in Chatham at exactly 11 a.m. But unless you want to wait in a long line, you might try arriving even earlier. When I showed up on a random Tuesday at 10:58 a.m., the line stretched out the door and into the parking lot.
“It’s like that every single day,” said Mark Walker, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Shae Walker.
In fact, when we spoke on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the wait was over two hours. That’s impressive for any restaurant, especially for one that just opened its doors Feb. 28. But behind the restaurant’s phenomenal success has been years of hard work, a successful pandemic pivot and one incredible sweet tea recipe.
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