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Tougher restrictions return to northwest Illinois region that includes Rockford, NIU after surge in COVID-19 cases

A resurgence in coronavirus rates in a northwest Illinois region that includes Rockford and Northern Illinois University will result in a return to tighter restrictions aimed at curbing the disease’s spread, officials announced Tuesday.

The nine-county region bordering Wisconsin and Iowa will see increased mitigation efforts beginning Saturday because its seven-day average of positive cases was 8% or higher for three consecutive days — a 2 percentage point jump in two weeks, state officials announced.

On top of that, the region has seen hospital admissions creeping up, although that uptick is not yet at warning levels.

Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker sounded the alarm on the area, noting the region’s positivity rate was already at a “concerning” 7.5% as of Wednesday.

A bicyclist heads west on East State Street on May 28, 2020, in Rockford.

A bicyclist heads west on East State Street on May 28, 2020, in Rockford. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

“As other regions have demonstrated, stricter mitigations will lead to safer communities when people mask up, keep their distance, wash their hands and respect public health,” Pritzker said in a statement Tuesday. “It is my hope that the residents of Region 1 can turn this situation around quickly.”

The region is the third one in the state to have its reopening efforts scaled back. The first was the Metro East region outside St. Louis, where bar service and indoor dining are still closed. That area’s seven-day test positivity rate remains above 6.5% and recently increased.

The region that includes Will and Kankakee counties also reverted to tougher rules but returned to the state’s phase four restrictions after the positivity rate decreased.

Under the tighter restrictions, no indoor service will be allowed at bars or restaurants, reservations will be required and all outdoor service must conclude by 11 p.m.

Patrons will be prohibited from ordering or waiting at the bar, and all indoor gatherings must be limited to 25 guests or 25% of overall room capacity. Casinos will also be subject to the 11 p.m. close time and 25% capacity, and party buses are banned.

Schools are not subject to the restrictions, although universities have become trouble spots nationwide since fall classes began. Earlier this month, NIU moved to online-only for two weeks due to more than 120 students testing positive after what the university described were “careless and unacceptable activities” from off-campus students.

In-person classes were scheduled to resume on Monday. A spokesperson for NIU was not immediately available for comment on the region’s new restrictions.

The positivity rate must average at most 6.5% for three consecutive days for the northwest region to return to normal phase four restrictions under the governor’s reopening plan. If the rate swings the other direction or remains at 8% or higher in the next two weeks, even more clampdowns might come.

Illinois public health officials Tuesday reported 1,362 newly diagnosed cases and 23 additional confirmed deaths of people with COVID-19, raising the statewide tally to 291,001 known cases and 8,637 deaths. Meanwhile, Chicago on Monday took a gradual step toward loosening restrictions for businesses under phase four of its more severe reopening plan.

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