Maurice Nix, a 25-year regular at The Green Mill, visits the bar on the first day of Phase Four of reopening on Friday, June 26. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Bars are causing significant spread of coronavirus throughout Illinois, which is seeing a second wave of cases, Gov. JB Pritzker said Tuesday.

Pritzker’s comments came just a day after Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, defended the city’s decision to keep allowing indoor service at bars as Chicago sees a skyrocketing number of new cases.

Being indoors at a bar is considered by experts to be among the riskiest actions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the summer, Lightfoot kept bars closed for longer than restaurants and put tighter restrictions on them, saying it was because they weren’t as safe since people could become intoxicated, let down their guard and not take safety precautions.

Now, though, city officials are saying bars aren’t causing that much spread in Chicago.

Bars and restaurants have “by and large done a very good job” of following the city’s health rules, Arwady said at a Monday news conference, and “where we are seeing spread is not the places that we regulate as a city, by and large.”

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Lightfoot and Arwady said Chicago’s new wave of cases is instead being fueled by people gathering and letting down their guard in small groups. About two-thirds of Chicagoans who got COVID-19 said they got it from someone they know, like a family member, friend or coworker — and three out of four of those close interactions took place at home, according to the city.

But Lightfoot has been criticized by residents who said the city is sending mixed messages by allowing residents to drink and gather inside bars, around strangers, while telling them not see groups of family and friends at home.

In contrast, Pritzker and Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the state’s contact tracers have found bars and restaurants are among the most common places where Illinoisans with coronavirus think they might have been exposed.

“There are pages and pages and pages of studies from around the world, from around the United States, not to mention articles” that highlight the risks of indoor service at bars, Pritzker said. “I mean, we’re literally talking about piles of these studies that show that bars and restaurants are spreading locations, significant spreading locations.”

Ezike said the state’s contact tracers ask people with confirmed cases of coronavirus where they might have been exposed to the virus and where they went while unknowingly sick, potentially exposing others. The top three answers are people’s workplaces, school and bars and restaurants, she said.

Because bars can create more potential for spread, the state bans indoor bar service in regions where coronavirus is surging — and those restrictions have helped drive down spread, Pritzker said.

Those restrictions haven’t yet been applied to Chicago, which is faring better then most of the rest of Illinois amid the second wave of COVID-19.

But Pritzker announced Tuesday those restrictions, among others, will go in place in Will, Kankakee, Kane and DuPage counties starting Friday, as their positivity rates have risen above 8 percent.

And Pritzker did say that Illinois as a whole is also seeing significant spread through small gatherings.

“It is also true, though, and I want to commend Dr. Arwady for saying, as she did, that private gatherings are another major spreading opportunity for the virus, something that we all need to be very, very careful about,” Pritzker said. “It’s not so much your own family that you’re living in your own pod with every day as it is when you’re inviting either other family that don’t live with you [or] friends over.”

People can lower the risk of spread by wearing masks and keeping 6 feet of distance, especially if they don’t know if someone is COVID-free, Pritzker said.

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