Businesses turn to the honor system for vaccine proof as Chicago eases indoor mask mandate



People walk along Chicago’s Navy Pier, Friday, May 14, 2021. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidelines, saying fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

Many Chicago businesses are now relying on the word of their patrons when it comes to wearing masks. The looser mask enforcement comes after public health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady’s announcement last week that fully vaccinated individuals are no longer required to wear face coverings indoors.

“Following guidance from the CDC and the state, and recognizing how safe and effective this COVID vaccine is, the city of Chicago will no longer require masks for fully vaccinated people in most settings,” Arwady said Tuesday.

A day prior to Chicago’s announcement, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker loosened the statewide mask mandate to match the CDC’s guidelines. Arwady’s Tuesday update aligns Chicago’s masking policy with the rest of Illinois.

Businesses will now be able to choose whether masks will be required in their establishments for those who have been vaccinated. They will still be mandatory in city of Chicago buildings, healthcare settings, schools, prisons and on public transit. 

“If you are not fully vaccinated, you need to continue to wear your mask in all indoor settings,” Arwady said. “We continue to strongly advise, though not require, masking policies for all indoor settings in Chicago until COVID capacity restrictions are lifted.”

Leaving mask requirements up to individual businesses has the potential to be confusing. After all, each business is essentially responsible for determining its own policy on masking. Some may check for proof of vaccination at the door, while others will continue to require masking for all customers, vaccinated or not. Arwady is asking that Chicago businesses post signs indicating their policy on the front door, so that patrons can choose whether to enter.

Two people takes a photograph on a stair case as others pass by, Friday, May 14, 2021 in Navy Pier, Chicago. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidelines on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces anymore unless they are in a big crowd of strangers. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar) (AP)

However, the lack of standardized vaccination proof in the United States means that many businesses will merely take patrons for their word. Craig Klugman, professor of Health Sciences at DePaul University, admits that this may be problematic.

“We’re now going to depend on people being honest, that if they’re not wearing a mask, that they are truly vaccinated,” Klugman said. “Some places are asking to show their cards, some places are not and just taking their word. The problem is that we know people lie. Even before we had vaccines, there were people who were anti-mask. They felt that wearing a mask violated their freedom … Many of those are the same people who are against vaccinations.”

This isn’t surprising considering how partisan the issue of Covid-19 has been since the pandemic began. The Pew Research Center found in 2020 that Republicans were far less likely than Democrats to consider Covid-19 as a major threat to public health. Now, 41 percent of Republicans say that they do not plan on getting vaccinated.

“So the question is, for people who were resistant to wearing masks before and tend to be vaccine resistant, do you trust them to tell the truth?” Klugman said.

For companies that don’t plan on checking proof of vaccination upfront, trusting their customers might be their only option if they want to capitalize on Chicago’s looser indoor mask and capacity restrictions.

Pedestrians walk along a shopping district on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago on Saturday, May 22, 2021. Chicago will no longer require masks for fully vaccinated people in most settings following similar changes from the state of Illinois and new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) (AP)

Among the businesses relying on the good will of their patrons is East Bank Club, the luxury fitness center in Chicago’s River North. An employee of East Bank Club, who requested anonymity, expressed his discomfort with the gym’s decision not to require masks indoors.

“They’re not checking anything; it’s totally by the honor system,” the employee said. “If you’re not wearing a mask in here, we can’t ask you to wear one. We have to assume you’re vaccinated.”

The employee explained that he would be much more comfortable if the gym checked for proof of vaccination at the door before allowing members to enter without masks, but he understood that this could cause some pushback from patrons. 

On the other hand, some members have expressed their own concerns with East Bank Club’s new mask policy.

“I’ve heard that some members have considered dropping their memberships because of the mandate being lifted, and it being based on the honor system,” the employee said. 

Time will tell how other businesses will choose to adapt to Chicago’s new rules surrounding mask-wearing. Some bars and restaurants have already been checking vaccination cards upfront to ease capacity limits and other restrictions. But as of right now, it appears that the employees of these establishments will continue wearing masks, regardless of vaccination status. 

“Our company will require our staff to continue wearing masks during their shifts, until further notice,” Rachel Sobotka, personnel manager of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group wrote in an email. “The masks are being used as a precaution to protect our staff from a potential unvaccinated guest, and because our staff works indoors the majority of the time.”

The state of Illinois is expected to fully reopen on June 11. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that Chicago is not yet committed to a date, but is on track to be at Phase 5 (full reopening) by the Fourth of July, contingent on declining infection rates. Currently, Chicago is in the Bridge Phase, the last and final phase before fully reopening.