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Lifting mask mandates 'is clearly not a decision based on data'

Medical, legal experts say, 'decision creates unnecessary uncertainty'

CHICAGO --- As some states push to lift mask mandates in schools, Northwestern Medicine experts say it’s still too early and is not rooted in science. An Illinois judge’s ruling that Gov. Pritzker’s COVID-19 mask mandate was authorized illegally caused confusion on Monday at school districts across the state. A Northwestern Law professor says the judge’s decision creates unnecessary uncertainty.

“It’s a little bit premature,” said Dr. Tina Tan, professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Yes, there are many places that have gotten over the omicron surge, but there are still some places in the U.S. where the peak hasn’t happened yet.”

“The timing of this is very poor because in Illinois, it’s still very cold so our kids are forced to spend most of their days indoors,” said Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine and a professor of epidemiology and pulmonary and critical care at Feinberg. “It would be one thing in the summer or the late spring when more things can be done outside where transmission rates are lower.”  

Carnethon is available for interviews starting at 4:30 p.m. (C.T.) Tuesday and throughout the day Wednesday. Contact Kristin Samuelson at to schedule an interview. 

Nadav Shoked is a professor of law at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. His work focuses on local government law, American legal history and on the law and theory of property. He can be reached at

Quote from Professor Shoked:

“The decision creates much — arguably unnecessary — uncertainty. The judge does not make clear that the decision only applies to the specific school districts involved in the specific case. That leaves room for each school district to argue that the decision applies (or doesn’t apply) to it. The decision to grant the requested remedy is also questionable, making a successful appeal by the State a rather likely proposition. 

“One could dispute whether or not the judge is correct in contending that the State is likely to eventually lose on the underlying substantive question — whether the Governor and the agencies answering to him followed the requisite procedures before adopting the current COVID rules. But that can hardly justify her decision to award a drastic remedy early in the litigation process.”  

If/when the next variant of concern emerges, Carnethon and Tan both said switching back to a mask mandate in schools will be difficult and cause more inconsistency for children. 

“You won’t ratchet it back up. The horse has left the barn,” Carnethon said. “Since this decision to roll back mask mandates isn’t based on data or public health evidence, it is unlikely that policymakers will rely on data to put them back into place.”

Additional quotes from Carnethon:

“It’s become a political issue versus a public health issue, which is indicated by a judge deciding this in Illinois. The areas that have announced masks are optional are most likely some of the same areas of the state where you’ve got the lowest vaccination rates and the lowest uptake of mitigation efforts, such as requiring vaccines for indoor activities. These political actions are prolonging the pandemic.

“An article in early 2021 in ‘National Geographic’ posed the question ‘how do you know when a pandemic is over?’ The answer is that it is over when people stop caring. Rolling back mask mandates in schools right now is a signal that we don’t care about our children and school staff members much. This will go on and on and on.”

Additional quote from Tan: 

“Omicron is going to take advantage of this opportunity to infect as many people as it can because not everyone is vaccinated, people are indoors and therefore, they’re at a much higher risk of the spreading the disease, which is very transmissible,” said Tan, also a physician at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.