‘Less than adequate time’: Even supporters worry about Philly’s quick indoor mask mandate

Announced with less than 24 hours’ notice, even backers see the new rules as another example of the city reacting to the virus, not getting ahead of it.

Saba Tedla is the owner of Booker’s Restaurant and Bar on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Saba Tedla is the owner of Booker’s Restaurant and Bar on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Starting at midnight, Philadelphia businesses must require masking indoors, unless they require proof of vaccination. The announcement, made Wednesday morning by city officials, brought mixed feelings among business owners and public-facing employees who dealt with monthslong shutdowns and had only recently felt something of a return to normal.

“I don’t think people realize that planning initiative takes time, and that they need to be a little bit more responsible, not reckless,” said Saba Tedla, owner of the West Philly eatery Booker’s Restaurant. “Making policy changes and giving people less-than-adequate notice is my biggest gripe.”

Enrique Medina, manager at South Philly eatery Café Y Chocolate, echoed Tedla.

“I wish they didn’t make knee-jerk decisions for the sake of making decisions,” said Medina, who supports the push for safety, but craves guidance from the city and wonders how customers will react. “Politicians cash a check every month, but not here, because we obviously rely on customers.”

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In announcing the new mandate Wednesday morning, Mayor Jim Kenney said that the city would offer guidance to businesses if they needed it, but that they essentially are left as the enforcers. The city does plan to fine businesses that are noncompliant.

“That’s part of running a business in this environment, in this pandemic, is checking that people follow the rules,” Kenney said, pointing to the restaurants that already require proof of vaccination.

Booker’s Restaurant never stopped asking patrons to wear masks while moving indoors, and Tedla was proactive. Seeing other cities bring back COVID-19 mitigation efforts, she recently procured $500 worth of masks at her local restaurant depot, for employees and customers.

Tedla has held off hosting large events at the restaurant and has limited seating to four people per party, a decision to which some patrons objected.

“Even when they said, ‘You can sit at the bar,’ we weren’t ready,” she said. “We just took our time. When we have to enforce certain rules with customers, there’s a lot of pushback … What’s hard is how do you keep a consistent policy among restaurants.”

Even as people like Tedla crave a better set of policies than the existing patchwork, they described feeling as if the city is once again being reactive and offering little support to an already struggling industry.

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Yet people such as Erica Bernal don’t mind the mandate.

The Philly mother of two and fitness enthusiast got COVID-19 last spring and is fully vaccinated. A gym lover, Bernal has been open about how she struggled with her mental health during lockdowns, and how she felt workout apps weren’t a good replacement for her usual workouts. Since the city loosened gym restrictions, Bernal has been back during off-peak hours, all while wearing a mask.

“I also think being healthy gives me a better chance at handling getting sick,” she said. I don’t think COVID is going anywhere — so now it’s time to start figuring how to navigate life through it.”

Similarly, some organizations won’t be affected by the new mandate too much. The Independence Visitor Center began requiring masks indoors the first week of August, said James Cuorato, president and CEO.

“The general reaction is people are amenable to wearing them,” said Cuorato, who added that the center has had to distribute quite a number of masks for people who left theirs home.

“They just weren’t aware of changing rules, thought that because they were vaccinated, they didn’t have to wear the mask anymore,” he said.

Gregg Caren, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, thinks the new restrictions help market the city as a safe place to visit and spend money.

“Even last summer, Philadelphia was being acknowledged as being one of the most well-masked and conservative — as it relates to masking — cities,” said Caren. “So Philadelphians are showing concern and care for one another, which means they’re showing care and concern for convention delegates and visitors that are going to come to our city. I think that’s a plus.”

Still, despite the public’s general compliance, Cuorato does worry how the delta variant is going to affect the tourism economy, which was only just starting to rebound.

The hope, said Cuorato, is that vaccination rates rise and case numbers drop enough so restrictions can ease again by the fall — a key time for Philly tourism.

“The fall was always a big season for international travelers, particularly from Europe,” he said. “And our visitor count, sometimes … as high as 25% of our audience, was international. And we won’t be seeing any of that for sure, or very little of that.”

Restaurants also worry about what the fall will bring as more people are forced indoors. Tedla, the owner of Booker’s, said staffing up was hard enough this summer. She’s already planning on how to keep all her workers should additional restrictions, such as capacity limits, be reinstated.

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