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Illinois Cautiously Reopens Zoos, Fitness Centers And Movie Theaters Friday

Updated at 11:09 p.m. ET

Illinois moves into the next phase of its reopening plan on Friday.

The guidelines allow movie theaters, zoos, museums and health and fitness centers to reopen with limited capacity. Restaurants will be able to offer in-door dining and gatherings of 50 people or fewer will be permitted.

Schools and child care programs with social distancing policies in place can also reopen. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans can return to work.

"The battle is not over," said Pritzker, "but so much progress has been made. If we continue to follow the path the doctors recommend we can continue our march towards more normalcy."

Pritzker said because residents followed guidelines—wearing face masks, frequently washing their hands, staying home and practicing social distancing—there's been more than a 60 percent decline in the number of coronavirus deaths per day in Illinois from a peak six weeks ago. There also has been a deeper drop in the percentage of new cases.

Any pride in success, he added, must be tempered by grief.

Thursday, the state reported 894 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the overall total to 139,434. The state reported 41 new fatalities; the number of Illinois residents who've lost their lives to the pandemic is 6,810. At the same time, Illinois set a single day testing record, conducting more than 31,000 for the first time.

Illinois expands its reopening just as coronavirus surges worsened in several other states. Arizona, California and Texas are among those that saw drastic increases in recent days, with some governors saying they might have to slow reopenings to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Pritzker said he expects there will be some difficulty in Illinois, too, as the state reopens and warns he won't hesitate to impose restrictions if there's a rise in cases.

However, Illinois Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said for now, Illinois residents deserve praise.

"You did it!," she said at a Thursday press conference. "Illinois is being touted across the country of getting it right."

Even so, Ezike said the virus persists and people are still being infected and dying. She likened the refusal by some to wear facemasks to playing a game of Russian Roulette.

"The stakes are high," she said. "Let's not gamble with coronavirus. We don't even know the long-term effects of COVID-19, what might happen to our lungs five years from now after being infected."

Dr. Emily Landon, the executive medical director for infection prevention at the University of Chicago, worries that some consider wearing a mask a political statement. She said they aren't, "unless there's a political statement on them."

She calls facemasks "a piece of fabric that covers a part of your body that needs to be protected like gloves in the winter," adding that, Illinois residents should be able to get used to them, just like she did when she first became a physician.

In Illinois and elsewhere, COVID-19 has hit areas with large Black and Latinx residents disproportionately hard. Carlos Nelson is a community leader in Chicago's Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. He urged everyone to take the next phase of the Illinois reopening seriously and for community leaders to set an example.

"We must do our part to maintain a level of awareness that the coronavirus is still real without a vaccine," he said.

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Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.