Philadelphia will drop its indoor mask mandate starting Wednesday, the city announced.
Despite Philadelphia now being in the “all clear” phase of its COVID-19 response rubric, masks will still be required in health care institutions, congregate settings and on public transportation. Additionally, the city emphasized that businesses and other institutions can impose more stringent protocols, meaning businesses may require proof of vaccination or that everyone wear a mask.
If the situation continues to improve, mask requirements for schools could end on March 9, the city said.
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City buildings, meanwhile, will require masks until Monday, March 7, though masks will be optional for visitors and fully vaccinated staff after that date. Unvaccinated staff are still required to wear two masks while indoors and around others.
“I’m very hesitant to say (the pandemic is) over. What we’re saying today is right now we are in a much safer space than we were a few months ago, even a few weeks ago," Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said. "And so we no longer need to require these restrictions, people can go about their lives, feel a little more normal."
She also stressed the importance of vaccines in decreasing severe infections and hospitalizations and urged people to get their shots.
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The city made the new mask announcement against the backdrop of other municipalities dropping their own mandates. Last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed the metrics it uses to determine whether to recommend indoor face coverings.
The city's "all clear" COVID-19 response phase is the least stringent tier in a four-level system announced Feb. 16. Under the "all clear" phase, at least three of the following metrics need to be true:
- Average new cases per day are less than 100
- Hospitalizations are under 50
- Percent positivity is under 2%
- Cases have not risen by more than 50% in the previous 10 days
As of Tuesday, the city was averaging 87 new cases a day and had 156 people being treated for COVID-19 in local hospitals, Bettigole said.
As of Monday, the test positivity rate was 2.8%, but the health department arrived at that figured bases solely on PCR tests, not antigen tests and rapid-at home tests, the latter of which more people have started using as they have become more widely available, Bettigole said.
The health commissioner said she recently directed her staff to calculate test positivity rate based on both PCR and antigen tests, which dropped the overall test positivity rate down to 1.7% – under the threshold needed for Philadelphia to enter the "all clear" phase.
The way data are collected could continue to evolve over time, she added.
Bettigole emphasized that more stringent pandemic restrictions could return in the future if – as happened nationwide last year – infections and hospitalizations rise dramatically yet again or if another dangerous viral variant emerges.
“We can get hit with another variant. Things can happen, so, yes, keep your masks somewhere," she said. "And again, COVID is still here. It’s at a much lower rate (where) we think it’s safe to do this, but you still may want to mask if you’re going into a crowded indoor place. The fact it’s no longer a mandate doesn’t mean it might not be a good idea.”
Bettigole previously noted that Philadelphia's stricter mask requirements have contributed to fewer infections compared to surrounding counties, despite those counties being more affluent and less diverse.
The new mask recommendation guidelines by the CDC give local jurisdiction the authority to impose stricter rules. However, they signal a shift in both current COVID-19 trends and the federal response to the pandemic.
Notably, masks were optional during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.
“We’ve reached a new moment in the fight against COVID-19, where severe cases are down to a level not seen since July of last year,” Biden said during his address.
He noted that the nation will continue to “stay on guard” against the virus by emphasizing measures like quickly developing vaccines for new viral variants, continuing to provide free at-home tests and antiviral treatments and providing vaccines to other parts of the world.
Bettigole, meanwhile, said people should enjoy the easing of mandates and the more positive pandemic conditions, but she still urged some caution.
“I think we should enjoy the good parts when they’re here, and we should stay alert and be careful of what could still be to come," she said.