SPRINGFIELD -- As the entire state remains on pace to enter the next phase of reopening in just nine days, Gov. JB Pritzker announced a major addition to the allowed activities under the phase: outdoor dining at restaurants.
Pritzker on Wednesday said restaurants will be able to open outdoor seating to customers when the businesses' region moves into Phase 3 of the Restore Illinois reopening plan, which all four regions are on pace to do on May 29.
"With the right restrictions, tables six feet apart and away from the sidewalks, masks and distancing measures for staff and other precautions, the experts believe that these services can open at a risk comparable to other outdoor activities," Pritzker said during his daily COVID-19 briefing in his office at the Capitol, the first time he's held a briefing in Springfield since March 16.
Pritzker said that no specific restaurant or legal action forced the addition of outdoor seating to the Phase 3 plan. Instead, he said that he has been continuously listening to health experts and industry leaders.
Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said at Wednesday's briefing that outdoor seating will not be a solution for every restaurant, but it will be "a benefit to many at a time when every dollar counts."
Toia said that more than half of Illinois restaurants have closed during the stay-at-home order, plummeting sales by 70 to 80 percent and putting 321,000 employees out of work. He called Pritzker's announcement a "step in the right direction" that gives restaurants a chance to get creative.
"Let's close down streets. Let's expand sidewalk cafes. Let's use parking lots and public ways," he said. "Let's show the world how innovative Illinois can be."
Pritzker encouraged local governments to be open-minded to restaurants' ideas.
"I want to encourage municipalities and mayors who are interested in helping restaurants expand outdoor seating options to do whatever is in their power and best fits their communities to help these restaurants," Pritzker said.
The Illinois Department of Public Health will issue specific guidance in the coming days. Restaurants are not slated to open to indoor dining until Phase 4.
The governor said that speeding up reopening has been made possible by Illinoisans continuing to obey social restrictions under the stay-at-home order.
"We've come too far and we've made so much progress because we've kept social distance, worn face coverings in public, washed our hands frequently and taken care of our most vulnerable to the best of our ability," he said. "We must persevere."
All state parks will reopen on May 29 under Phase 3, Pritzker announced Wednesday.
Phase 3 will also include the reopening of indoor and outdoor tennis facilities with IDPH safety precautions and capacity limits.
Golf courses will allow four people per tee time and golf carts will be permitted with either one person or one immediate household per cart. Boating and camping of up to 10 people will also be permitted.
Pritzker said the state will provide guidance "in the coming days" on how other outdoor recreation businesses like driving ranges, shooting ranges and paintball courses can operate in Phase 3. Gyms, barber shops, nail salons and other personal care services will also be allowed to begin reopening.
The governor noted that local governments are allowed to establish stricter guidelines than those imposed by the state.
A handful of municipalities have also tried to reopen early despite the governor threatening to withhold their pass-through funding from the federal government.
Hospitalization numbers improving
IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike announced during Wednesday's briefing that the state is seeing a decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
3,914 people are hospitalized with the virus in Illinois, which is the lowest since IDPH began publishing that data daily on April 12 and the first time it has been below 4,000.
There were 1,005 patients in intensive care and 554 of those patients were on ventilators as of midnight Tuesday, which is also the lowest since April 12.
IDPH reported 2,388 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, pushing the state's total above 100,000. The department also reported 147 new deaths, pushing that total to more than 4,500.
On a day that saw more than 21,000 tests in the past 24 hours, Pritzker noted Wednesday that the state is also seeing progress with its positive case rate. The governor said Illinois' 7-day average is just higher than 1 positive case per 10 tests. Illinois has tested more than 642,000 people, which is about 1 in 20 Illinoisans.
"We are by no means out of the woods. The virus is still causing sickness and taking lives. But directionally things are getting better," Pritzker said.
• Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.