Philly ends mask mandate, days after reinstating it

Travelers wearing face masks at PHL Airport

Travelers wearing face masks move about the A terminal at the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Philadelphia is ending its indoor mask mandate, effective immediately, city health officials announced Friday. Mask-wearing is now s​​trongly encouraged, but not required.

The abrupt reversal comes days after people in the city had to start wearing masks again amid a sharp increase in infections.

The Board of Health voted Thursday to rescind the mandate, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, which released a statement that cited “decreasing hospitalizations and a leveling of case counts.”

“I think it really is a testament to Philadelphians and how much we actually are willing to take care of each other that we are seeing this turnaround here,” Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole told reporters on a live-streamed press call Friday.

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The city is ditching not only the mandate, but also the risk assessment system — known as “response levels” — that triggered it in the first place. The city’s response system was stricter than the CDC’s, which put more emphasis on hospitalizations, and made Philly the first major U.S. city to reinstate its indoor mask mandate this week, sparking fierce blowback, including a legal effort to get the mandate thrown out.

Philly’s latest mandate went into effect Monday. Philadelphia had ended its earlier indoor mask mandate on March 2.

Bettigole told the Board of Health at a public meeting Thursday night that hospitalizations had unexpectedly gone down 25% in a matter of days.

“We’re in a situation that we really had not anticipated being in this soon but it is good news,” she said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “So I’m really very happy … to say it appears that we no longer need to mandate masks in Philadelphia and that we can actually move to simply a strong recommendation.”

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City attributes results to the warning — not the mandate

Despite the city abandoning it, Bettigole said the response levels system worked as intended — by causing people to increase precautions ahead of the mandate. She said it was the warning the week prior, not the mandate itself, that curbed the spike.

“There’s not a way that we would have seen the decrease in hospitalizations we’re seeing over the course of this week, just based on enforcement starting on the 18th,” she said. “So what that means is, we don’t feel like the mandate is necessary, at this point.”

The city does not plan to create a new system of metrics to trigger mandates, but will instead rely more on mask recommendations and warnings going forward, Bettigole said.

“The paying attention to that 50% increase in cases over 10 days, even if cases are relatively low, I feel like that is, in part, what bought us that decrease in hospitalizations that we’re seeing now,” she said. “So I think it’s useful to be able to tell people in a sort of forecasting way, this is what we’re seeing — but without the mandate.”

When the city announced April 11 that mandatory masking was coming back, Bettigole said it was necessary to forestall a potential new wave driven by an omicron subvariant. She said Philadelphia had crossed the threshold of rising cases at which the city’s guidelines call for people to wear masks indoors.

“If we fail to act now, knowing that every previous wave of infections has been followed by a wave of hospitalizations, and then a wave of deaths, it will be too late for many of our residents,” Bettigole said at the time.

Cases and hospitalizations continued to rise at least through Monday, when the health department reported 82 patients in the hospital with COVID-19 — up nearly 80% from a week earlier — with confirmed cases up 58% over that same span to 224 per day. Those numbers were still a fraction of what the city endured during the wintertime omicron surge.

Bettigole told the Board of Health on Thursday night that hospitalizations had since drifted down to 65.

Mixed messaging worries after a week of conflicting mask rules

Bettigole said Friday this change of course was in keeping with promises she made earlier.

“I said when we announced the mask mandate that if we didn’t see hospitalizations rise in tandem with the rise in cases, that we would need to change and rethink our metrics,” she said. “And that’s what we’re doing here.”

But some worry the sudden shift will add to the confusion around masking, the same week that SEPTA’s change in mask rules based on a court ruling conflicted with the city mandate.

“It kind of looks indecisive when you make a decision and then four days later, you say no,” said Seble Grima, who was eating lunch with family at a cafe in West Philly Friday when she heard the news. “Like, which one is it?”

Grima worries the city’s backtracking could erode its credibility.

“The hard part is, how do you decide later on, is it really bad or is it not?” she said. “That’s why you have people that kind of fight wearing the mask.”

Sam Samour, working outside a coffee shop in West Philly Friday, liked the consistency of the city’s metrics-based system to automatically trigger mask mandates, and thinks the city’s decision to abandon it was “silly.”

“It seems like it was probably not enough time to know exactly what would be happening with hospitalizations,” they said. “I think that mask mandates make sense.”

But Samour has already had COVID, and is more concerned about the people around them than about catching the virus themself.

“When the mandate’s in place, I always wear a mask,” they said. “But with the mandate not being in place, I think I just do what people around me are doing.”

Bettigole acknowledged Friday that states and counties in the region are still seeing rising infections — and said Philadelphians should continue to wear masks and get tested.

“Clearly there’s an elevated level of risk all around us. This is not a time that we should say, ‘Woohoo,’ throw our masks off, and go to parties,” she said. “It is a time that I think people can take reasonable precautions.”

A change after opposition from businesses

The restaurant industry had pushed back against the city’s reimposed mask mandate, saying workers would bear the brunt of customer anger over the new rules.

“I guess it’s nice to not have to have those conversations with people anymore,” said Juan Lopez, a barista in a coffee shop in West Philly.

Lopez probably won’t stop wearing a mask at work, but the end of having to ask customers to comply with the mandate did come as a relief.

“A lot of people take those opportunities to virtue-signal about how they’re free thinkers or whatever, when that’s not really my job,” Lopez said.

Several businesses and residents filed suit in state court in Pennsylvania seeking to overturn the renewed mandate. The Board of Health’s vote to rescind the mandate came after board members met in private to discuss the lawsuit.

Bettigole seemed to acknowledge Friday that the reaction of businesses played a part in the city’s decision making.

“We designed [the response level] system back in February with a lot of stakeholder input from the business community, with the idea that if we did have to trigger something, everybody was already on board,” Bettigole said. “That clearly has not worked. So, you know, I think the idea of then building a different system based on updated metrics doesn’t necessarily make sense.”

The end of the mandate won swift praise from those fighting it in court.

“We were very pleased to see Philadelphia make the correct decision to rescind the mask mandate,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Thomas W. King III, who was among those involved in last year’s successful legal challenge to the statewide mask mandate in schools.

The Justice Department said it is appealing a judge’s order that voided the federal mask mandate on planes and trains and in travel hubs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked the Justice Department to appeal the decision handed down by a federal judge in Florida earlier this week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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