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'I'm not surprised': Gov. JB Pritzker enacts indoor mask mandate as hospitals are stretched thin

Southern Illinois had one open ICU bed Tuesday. Pritzker's plan requires masks indoors and vaccines for public schools and health care staff.

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Along E. Main Street in Belleville, Keil's Clock Shop has a sign on the front window that shows masks are required for unvaccinated customers, but manager David Sauerhage has already printed an updated version after he got word it was time for a change.

"10:30 or 11 o'clock this morning, I had an email on my phone from the Belleville Chamber of Commerce, and then I just decided that I'm going to go ahead and make one up," Sauerhage said.

That email outlined new directives from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D-Illinois, enacting a new indoor mask mandate and vaccine requirements in schools and hospitals

Illinois residents will be required to wear masks indoors, and vaccines will be required for public school and health care staff.

The mask mandate applies to people over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status. It takes effect Monday, Aug. 30.

Sauerhage says he threw away their sign from the previous mask mandate, optimistic it wouldn't be needed again.

"Not at all. Not at all. I thought with the vaccinations, everybody going along, I thought that we were making a step in the right direction," Sauerhage said.

Pocahontas restaurant owner Ashley Driemeyer was less optimistic.

"I had no doubt in my mind that this was going to happen," Driemeyer said.

Driemeyer previously defied Pritzker's ban on indoor dining, opening her Fainting Goat restaurant to all patrons, and receiving a citation for it. She says the court system never pursued any further action past the citation. She now plans to defy the mask mandate.

"You can't eat with a mask on, and I am not going to enforce the mask mandate," she said. "I am going to give my customers the right to choose whether or not they want to wear a mask."

In his briefing, Pritzker and staff noted southern Illinois's low vaccination -- and high hospitalization -- rates.

"In Region 5, southern Illinois, the least vaccinated region of the state, there was only one available ICU bed on Tuesday," said IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike. "That's one ICU bed in the entire region for the 20 counties it serves for anyone, whether it's appendicitis, a car crash, any kind of injury that would need a bed."

"I'm not surprised by it at all," Memorial Hospital Belleville's Dr. Jiggar Hindia said. "You know, we've been seeing an uptick in cases for several weeks now, and something has to be done."

Hindia, a Washington University Physician and ICU Director of Memorial Hospital Belleville, saying rising numbers have stretched their resources and staff.

"I don't think we ever really truly felt like it was gone," Hindia said of high case counts, adding "to see come back with a vengeance like this, though, is is a bit surprising."

Back on E. Main Street, Sauerhage says he's seen mask usage pick up over the month. He is optimistic people will comply with the new mandate, though he will hold on to all storefront signs for now.

"Let's just be safe," he said.

Contact reporter Sara Machi on Facebook and Twitter.

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