Illinois enters Phase 5 of the state’s Restore Illinois plan Friday. This phase, called “Illinois Restored,” lifts most pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and event venues, including capacity limits.

At Joe Sippers Cafe, a staple of the local coffee scene, this comes as a moment of relief.

“The transition to Phase 5 is very exciting for all of us in the cafe and the community,” said owner Emily Debenham. “This certainly means a lot to restaurants and clubs in the area but even more so to all our local event hosts that bring people into our community.”

Debenham said following pandemic guidelines provided a challenge. In addition to selling food, Joe Sippers provides space for people to meet, something that hasn’t been possible during much of the pandemic — either due to state restrictions or people’s personal hesitations.

“In the cafe, we followed all the guidelines from the state, and while that was challenging, we used those moments to learn and grow. We knew we had to meet the community where they were as things changed,” she said.

Those learning moments led the cafe to strengthen its online ordering and introduce curbside pickup.

“We’ve found that, even as we come out on the other end of this, those services have value to our customers even as we get back to a new normal,” said Debenham.

Joe Sippers is just one of dozens of restaurants and businesses around town that no longer have pandemic-related restrictions.

The new COVID-19 guidelines lift all capacity limits for businesses and event venues. Vaccinated people are not required to social distance or wear a face covering, though the guidelines do recommend unvaccinated people wear a face covering and social distance when indoors. When socially distancing outdoors, unvaccinated people are not required to wear a face covering unless otherwise required by a business or municipality.

All individuals are still required to wear a mask in congregate facilities like nursing homes and prisons, on public transportation and in health care settings, per Centers for Disease Control guidance.

Educational settings, like schools and day care centers, are still required to follow separate guidance from the state board of education and state health department. The latest guidelines require masking and social distancing unless the individual is outside and social distancing, eating, napping, under 2 years old or wearing a face shield. Staff can take their masks off when alone.

On Thursday, the state had a test positivity rate of 1.3% and 366 new confirmed and probable cases. These are some of the lowest counts since the beginning of the pandemic.

More than 68% of adults in the state have received one vaccine dose and 51% are fully vaccinated, according to the governor’s press release.

Locally, Effingham County has had a test positivity rate of between 0.6% and 1.3% and has gone a full month with no new cases among adults 65 years and older. Thirty-one percent of adults in the county are fully vaccinated, and 75% of adults over age 65 are vaccinated, according to Karen Feldkamp, the Effingham County Health Department’s emergency preparedness coordinator.

Neighboring counties have similar positivity rates, with two notable exceptions. Cumberland County had an 8.2% positivity rate from May 23 to 29. Jasper County is the only county in the area, and one of only five in the state, to have a zero positivity rate over the same time span, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Despite the positive trends and loosening restrictions, the Effingham County Health Department urges people to continue to keep themselves safe.

“We continue to have cases that are positive with the British strain, which is more contagious than some of the other strains we’ve seen in the past,” said Feldkamp. “If individuals are not vaccinated, they only have masking and social distancing to protect them.”

Feldkamp also said the department continues to utilize programs that have become integral to the community’s response to the pandemic.

“We have been able to vaccinate thousands of people in clinics at the Effingham County Health Department and our community partners have also provided vaccinations to patients at their clinics,” said Feldkamp. “Disease surveillance through the contact tracing program is still active and an important tool in reducing the spread of COVID as well as other communicable diseases.”

Local leaders are optimistic about the future of the community as the state transitions to Phase 5.

“The City of Effingham remains informed and prepared for Phase 5, and we hold the safety and health of our citizens as top priority,” said Effingham Mayor Mike Schutzbach. “We encourage vaccination, and for those who choose not to vaccinate, we urge them to take proper safety measures.”

“Hopefully, we will continue to see individuals getting back to work that have been off during COVID. We continue to see more people going to restaurants and events,” said City Administrator Steve Miller.

As summer begins, large-scale events are making a comeback, like the Moccasin Creek Festival from June 17 to 20, Effingham Ham-Jam from July 23 to 24 and Effingham County Fair from July 31 to Aug. 7, among others.

But even with the relaxing of restrictions, increase in vaccinations and return of many normal facets of life, the health department urges caution.

“There are still unanswered questions — how will variants affect the number of cases over the next several months? Will we see another spike in positive cases as people move indoors?” said Feldkamp. “Please be patient, we are almost there.”

Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com

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Andrew Adams can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 132 or andrew.adams@effinghamdailynews.com