A precipitous drop in cases, pressure from businesses, and a need for transparency contributed to a new set of benchmarks to evaluate COVID-19 safety that ended Philadelphia’s vaccine mandate for indoor dining Wednesday.
“All of this is a balance and I’ve said from the beginning we want to be the least restrictive necessary, and that we would try to lift this as soon as possible,” Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s health commissioner, said at a news conference. “With cases dropping out, positivity dropping off, it doesn’t feel like we have to have it in place right now, and it feels unfair to continue it longer than we have to have it.”
If trends continue, she said, it’s likely the mask mandate for public indoor settings, including businesses, could end too in a matter of weeks.
Health experts agreed the time is probably right to relax some restrictions.
“The trend of cases has been so precipitous in its decline that I don’t think it’s appropriate to ease up,” said Jose Torradas, a doctor and medical director of Unidos Contra COVID, which has worked to boost vaccinations among the region’s Hispanic population .
The easing is the latest sign of optimism among policymakers and experts about the state of the pandemic. At a briefing Wednesday, White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said the United States was “making strong progress toward moving to a time when COVID is no longer a crisis.”
Test positivity rates at the University of Pennsylvania are so low the school is ending restrictions on social gatherings. Even while warning that the omicron variant remains a threat, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy noted Wednesday the coming warmer months will further reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
“The numbers are headed in the right direction,” he said, but “we are not yet at the warm temperatures that will take us outdoors for more and more of our regular activities, which we know makes us less susceptible to infection.”
New Jersey was among the states that eased mask restrictions this month as the omicron surge fades. The average daily new cases have dropped 63% over the last two weeks in the Garden State, according to federal data analyzed by the New York Times, and new hospitalizations per capita have fallen 52% in the same time period. The daily percent positivity is down to less than 7%, though it is slightly higher in the southern part of the state.
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Less than a week ago, Philadelphia health officials said it would likely be months before mask requirements ended, but plummeting cases led to a revaluation. New COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday were down 95% from the peak of the omicron surge in early January. Hospitalizations of patients with the virus were down 80%, and the test positivity rate in the city was 2.9%.
At the same time, officials have said hotels and restaurants were clamoring for an end to restrictions. Venues reported losing conferences and events to suburban competitors that don’t have vaccine or masking requirements. Restaurant owners have said checking customers’ vaccine cards is burdensome.
The tiered system Philadelphia introduced Wednesday is intended to create a transparent set of benchmarks to explain when mandates will be introduced, and why. The approach was the result of discussions within the health department and with outside experts and may be a unique approach to determining when mandates are needed, Bettigole said.
“I’m not aware of a similar set of metrics in other places right now,” she said.
The system uses case counts, hospitalizations, positivity rates, and the rate of case increases to establish what precautions are necessary in the case of a new surge or concerning variant.
“It does depend on what other variants emerge,” Bettigole said. “I can’t promise we won’t have to reintroduce new mandates.”
Based on these metrics, the city now falls into the mask-precautions-only category, ending the need for vaccine cards or a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter a business that serves food or drinks. This would apply not just to restaurants but to businesses such as hotels, bowling alleys, and the Wells Fargo Center.
“Over the past two years, we’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in state-of-the-art health and safety measures at Wells Fargo Center, and those investments have been a major success,” Valerie Camillo, president of business operations for Wells Fargo Center and the Philadelphia Flyers, said in a statement. “Now, we’re ready to start getting back to normal, and so are our fans.”
The Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association said the relaxed restrictions “will keep Philadelphia restaurants on the road to financial recovery and welcome back business for caterers, hotels, and wedding venues that were lost due to the previous mandate.”
Ending the vaccine mandate, Bettigole said, was a higher priority than ending masking requirements because the former was more intrusive for the city’s dining, entertainment, and hospitality industries.
“We were hearing loud and clear from Philadelphia businesses,” Bettigole said, “they wanted some transparency, some predictability.”
The eased restrictions don’t apply to all settings. Transit systems and health-care or congregant-care settings still fall under federal guidance. It doesn’t apply to colleges either. The city is in the process of discussing whether precautions will change in schools, Bettigole said. Employer vaccine mandates, including the vaccine requirement for all city workers, remain in effect.
Restaurants and other venues can also choose to request diners prove vaccination, she said. Taking that additional step, she said, would negate the need for masking.
But ending the vaccine mandate for indoor dining costs the city a valuable incentive for encouragement vaccinations. About 74% of Philadelphians 12 and older are vaccinated, and just over half of children ages 5 to 11. To compensate, the city is offering $100 to any city residents who get fully vaccinated at one of 10 participating health clinics over the next six weeks . That span gives people who are not vaccinated time to get two doses of vaccine and receive the cash gift.
That offer isn’t available to city workers and won’t address the ongoing issues in getting workers vaccinated. While 84% of the city workforce is vaccinated, Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday, rates are much lower among firefighters, in the range of 60%.
“I think that the firefighter issue is purely political,” Kenney said. “Obviously they supported Donald Trump in the election and they bought into Donald Trump’s stuff and that’s why they’re resistant.”
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For the time being, people will be doffing masks to eat indoors regardless of vaccination status while staying masked for indoor activities like grocery shopping or visiting a museum. The change is a disappointment to people with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, or those who just felt safer dining indoors knowing everyone around them had to prove vaccination.
Bettigole said she was hopeful the coming weeks would see the city maintain a lower hospitalization rate, allowing masks to come off. The city last reached the benchmarks that would allow that last summer.
Bettigole credited indoor masking requirements with keeping Philadelphia’s case numbers lower than those in surrounding counties, and that warranted waiting for lower case counts, hospitalizations, and positivity rates before lifting it.
“Rolling back the mask mandate before we hit the metrics puts us at risk of going backwards, of having cases multiply,” she said. “There’s a reason we’re keeping it as long as we are.”
Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.