COOK COUNTY, IL — Proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required next month at many locations in suburban Cook County under an order issued Thursday by the Cook County Department of Public Health.
Starting Jan. 3, patrons of any indoor venue where food or drink is served, as well as fitness and recreation centers, must provide proof that they are fully vaccinated to enter for more than a few moments, according to public health officials.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the county was moving in lockstep with the city of Chicago to target indoor venues where there is the greatest risk of spreading the coronavirus.
“With the dual threat presented by the delta and omicron variants, and with cases, hospitalizations and deaths rising to new heights across Cook County, we must once again reassess and realign our strategies with what science is telling us and we must do what’s necessary to protect our communities,” Preckwinkle said Thursday at a news conference.
“Now, we know that these measures won’t be a simple or easy lift, and we want to do everything we can to assist our friends and neighbors who own restaurants, bars, fitness and entertainment venues, with their adjustment to the change,” she added.
Dr. Kiran Joshi, co-lead and chief medical officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said the recent rapid rise in new infections and hospitalizations mirrors the numbers from last winter’s surge.
Joshi said there is not yet state-level data about the prevalence of the more-contagious omicron variant, but there is good reason to believe it now makes up a majority of new cases in the state, even as the wave of infections driven by the delta variant has yet to subside.
“So this is really a surge on top of a surge, and now we’ve got omicron on top of that,” Joshi said. “That’s evidenced by the really rapid rise in cases we’ve seen over time, and really the thing that we are most concerned about is demonstrated here with a graph of the number of [hospital] admissions that we’re seeing for COVID over time.”
The new order, which aligns with an announcement from the Chicago Department of Public Health a day earlier, applies to anyone age 5 and older. Those age 16 and older must show identification issued by a government or school matching the name on the vaccination card, although the ID is not required to include a photo.
Preckwinkle said the order is necessary to stave off the need for more Draconian orders such as forced business closures.
“We had a period in this country in which we closed businesses. Frankly, I don’t think any of us want to be at that point again, and if we don’t want to be at that point, we need to do everything we can to ensure that people who come into our establishments are protected against the virus,” she said. “And that means checking identification, checking vaccination status.”
Employees of businesses covered under the order — restaurants, bars, theaters, event spaces, arenas, gyms, health clubs, strip clubs, private clubs, dance studios, yoga studios, bowling alleys, arcades, play spaces and more — are not required to be vaccinated. But unvaccinated workers are required to undergo regular COVID-19 testing.
Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead and chief medical officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said businesses have to write up a protocol for how they enforce the new order, including how they keep track of their unvaccinated staff’s test results.
“We do not recommend this. We hope that all employers are requiring their employees to be vaccinated,” Rubin said. “However, for those employees that are not vaccinated — either because they are allergic to the vaccine or because they have chosen not to be vaccinated — they do have the ability to test on a weekly basis and provide that testing results to their employer on a weekly basis.”
Customers can present their Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-issued physical vaccination card, a photograph of the card or the card information displayed on a third-party application. Other than matching the name on the card with the name on some form of identification, businesses will not be able to verify the information is accurate.
“I don’t think there’s any verification that’s required,” Joshi said. “To some degree, we are taking people at their word in terms of the documentation they provide.”
Several states including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, New York and Minnesota have mobile apps allowing residents to opt in to show their proof of vaccine. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he is working with more than a dozen states to create a standardized quick response, or QR, code system for displaying proof of vaccination. Other states — including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming — have banned requirements for so-called “vaccine passports.”
Rubin said Cook County public health officials will investigate complaints about businesses that fail to comply with her new order but would not immediately issue fines or seek their closure.
“We work with them to help them with appropriate technical support so that they can comply, and there will be no fines issued or put forth to the state’s attorney for an administrative hearing at that point,” Rubin said. “If there are repeat offenders, where we keep having continual complaints from an individual establishment, we then will potentially forward that to the appropriate legal authorities, which in this case is the state’s attorney’s office.”
Preckwinkle said she hopes a majority of affected businesses will go along with the order.
“We want to provide as much information as we can to affected businesses so that they can comply. We hope that people will comply. It’s in their interest. It’s in the interest of their customers and clients that they comply. There’s no way to ensure 100 percent compliance, but we’re going to provide information so people know how to comply,” the board president said. “We’re going to be following that up with visits from our health care professionals when there are complaints. And I’m hopeful that the large majority, the overwhelming majority, of those businesses that are in these categories will comply.”
The Cook County order does not apply to places that have their own municipal health departments, including Skokie, Evanston, Oak Park and Stickney Township.
Skokie issued a similar proof-of-vaccination mandate that is scheduled to take effect Jan. 10. An Evanston city spokesperson said its health department is currently “encouraging” businesses to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test and would make a determination next week about whether to make it mandatory. Oak Park officials said they are considering following suit “to avoid being an outlier in the region and potentially attracting high numbers of unvaccinated visitors.” Stickney Township officials did not immediately respond to a request for information.
Exemptions to the new order include those entering establishments for less than 10 minutes and remaining masked while picking up carryout food, deliveries or using the bathroom, Rubin said. Students on school trips, houses of worship, charitable food service such as soup kitchens, indoor locations limited to tenants and traveling professional athletes are also exempt.
Preckwinkle said the effects of omicron and future variants are unpredictable, so it is impossible to say what it would take to rescind the new vaccination requirements.
“Believe me, we will remove them as we are able,” she said. “But at the moment, what we see is omicron overwhelming us, so that’s where we are.”