August 11, 2021
Everyone entering businesses and other indoor public spaces in Philadelphia again will be required to wear face masks, in most instances, until the trend of increasing rates of COVID-19 infections reverses, city officials said Wednesday.
The citywide mask mandate takes effect at midnight Thursday.
One exception to Philadelphia's mask mandate are businesses with policies requiring patrons to show proof they have received their COVID-19 vaccination shots prior to entry. Fully inoculated people, carrying their vaccination cards, can go maskless in those businesses. At restaurants and other businesses that adopt these vaccine requirements for everyone – including their staffs – masks will not be required for anyone.
Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole talked about what a "true" vaccination policy is for businesses, particularly with respect to children under 12 who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
A restaurant that requires everyone 12 years old and older to be vaccinated but allows families with children younger than 12 to be seated indoors does not have a "true" vaccination policy.
That is not to say a restaurant is prohibited from serving anyone younger than 12, but if younger children are permitted to be seated indoors, then all customers – vaccinated and unvaccinated – should be wearing masks when they are not at their tables, Bettigole said.
At restaurants with a true vaccine requirement, children under 12 will only be permitted to dine outdoors.
The city's motivation for introducing the new "mask or vaccine" policy stems from the emerging picture of COVID-19 transmission largely due to the delta variant.
Average daily cases in Philadelphia have doubled three times in the last month, up from around 20 in early July to about 180 in August. Hospitalizations have risen to more than 100 people for the first time since June, more than doubling from a low of 48 in July. And the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back with positive results has again climbed above 5% after falling as low as 1% in recent months.
Though these numbers are nowhere near the peaks seen earlier in the pandemic and elsewhere in the country currently, Bettigole said that the "doubling rate" is a serious concern and justifies action to prevent further spread.
"I am going to stress that this is a first step," Bettigole said. "We're hoping that this brings us enough safety that we get control of this surge and not have to do more."
The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association expressed frustration over the city's new policies on Wednesday, complaining that businesses were not included in the decision-making process and that an "unfair responsibility" is now placed on them to enforce the rules.
"The PRLA supports the goal of a vaccinated and safe work environment for all. However, mitigation efforts should not put business owners and operators in a position to choose between a fully vaccinated staff and customer base, or masks for all," PRLA president John Longstreet said. "This puts an unfair burden of verification on employees with no time to train or implement protocols. Over this past year, restaurant workers have suffered severe backlash when enforcing those rules."
During Wednesday's briefing, Mayor Jim Kenney downplayed the impact of the new "mask or vaccine" policy. He compared the enforcement of a vaccine requirement, if chosen by a business, to the procedures already in place for bartenders, servers and security staff who check identification cards for age.
For businesses that wish to require vaccination, the mayor said there should not be difficult obstacles to clear.
"That's part of running a business in this environment, in this pandemic — checking to make sure people follow the rules," Kenney said. "A number of restaurants have decided already to go with vaccinated persons only. That seems to be a trend in restaurants and even in health clubs."
Bettigole said Philadelphia's "proof of vaccine" system is different from the policy in New York City, for example, where an electronic vaccine pass system has been implemented separate from the display of physical vaccination cards or photos of them.
"It doesn't take fancy electronic equipment to check vaccines at the door if a business decides to that," Bettigole said. "We are assuming that the majority of businesses, right now, will likely go with the mask mandate — and they've done that before and know how to do it."
For those that choose to require proof of vaccination, the health department wants it to be made as easy as possible for people.
"We're asking businesses that do have a vaccination requirement to have a reasonable system for enforcing that," Bettigole said. "To me, if they're requiring a picture of somebody's vaccine card, that seems like a reasonable system. They could just check the card as well."
Businesses are urged to make their policies obvious at their entrances and in other communications with the public.
Philadelphia has developed a method for people who have lost their COVID-19 vaccination card to request their immunization record. The city's COVID call center can be reached at (215) 684-5488 or an email can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org to request this information. Staff will help verify an address and determine the quickest way to get immunization records delivered.
"We have access to the records of people who were vaccinated in Philadelphia, but not people vaccinated in New Jersey or Montgomery County, or so on," Bettigole said. "That's part of that electronic verification system that is a challenge unless it happens at a larger jurisdiction level, like the state."
The city's carveout enabling businesses to require proof of vaccination was designed specifically to aid places like restaurants and gyms, Bettigole said. It allows them to ensure a higher level of protection for those who visit them, while minimizing confusion in light of the new mask mandate.
At gyms, for example, Bettigole pointed out the difficuly staff would have remembering which people were vaccinated or not after they entered. If unvaccinated guests removed masks that were required for them only, it would would be harder for staff to identify and keep track of those people than it would be to simply require vaccination across the board, if the gym opts to do so.
The city's new policy effectively concedes that an "honor system" approach to masking hasn't been effective at preventing a problematic rate of COVID-19 infection, despite relatively high rates of vaccination in Philadelphia.
"It's just too challenging for people," Bettigole said. "I think the honor system clearly hasn't worked."
Currently, more than 63% of Philadelphia adults are fully vaccinated and more than 77% of Philly adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
During Wednesday's briefing, it also was noted that the city is moving towards requiring that all municipal employees be vaccinated. Workers who are not vaccinated, including the limited number people who would be exempt from this policy, now must wear double-masks to work.
Bettigole acknowledged the inconvenience of wearing two masks. She said the solution is for city employees to get their shots. As of Sept. 1, all new hires working for Philadelphia must be fully vaccinated.
The largest union representing municipal workers, District Council 33, gave its support to a vaccine requirement on Tuesday.
But not everyone is on board with the initiative. The Philadelphia Firefighters and Paramedics Union has said that it would not support a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its members if one was instituted by the city.
"Our employees will have to be vaccinated, and there are many other private sector companies requring the same thing," Kenney said. "If somebody wants to sue us for trying to keep them alive, then we'll see what the judge has to say."
Officials did not say how many of the city's more than 25,000 employees have been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday.
Among the other restrictions announced, Philadelphia will require masks for unseated outdoor gatherings of more than 1,000 people. This could impact events like the Made in America music festival on Labor Day weekend, and Kenney said city officials have contacted the concert's organizers.
At seated outdoor gatherings and events, such as Eagles and Phillies games, masks will not be required except for indoor spaces.
And everyone entering city buildings will be required to wear masks.
For the time being, the city will not introduce any new capacity limits for indoor and outdoor events. Bettigole cited the effectiveness of the vaccine and a commitment not to hamper Philadelphia's recovering economy any more than necessary to prevent transmission.
"We have a weapon now that we didn't have last year. We have effective vaccines and they are readily available. And they are free," Bettigole said. "When we looked at this and said we need to do something, we also knew that capacity limits and closures are a huge economic hit to our city. Masks and vaccination mandates are not, so that's why we went in this direction. We're going to have to watch the numbers and see if this works."
It's unclear how long the new mask mandate will remain in effect. The health department monitors a range of metrics including the average daily case count, hospitalizations, test positivity and COVID-19 conditions across the region and the rest of the country.
"I think when we start to see cases going down and our vaccination rate has risen considerably — those things will go together," Bettigole said. "If we can get the vaccination rate up high enough, cases will go down. When we start to see that coming down — positivities going down, hospitalizations coming down — that's when we would be ready to do that."
Kenney said the city is not looking to move toward lockdowns and closures again.
"Not if everybody acts like a mature adult and does what they're supposed to do. We don't anticipate another lockdown," Kenney said. "We didn't anticipate doing this in June and July. But you can see the level of immaturity around the country, even from governors and legislatures. This is where we are."
The key to the city's ongoing recovery continues to be encouraging those who aren't yet vaccinated to go get it done.
"We really, desperately need everybody in the city to get vaccinated if they are able," Bettigole said. "If we can vaccinate our city, we should be able to break free of this cycle."