Philadelphia's indoor mask mandate is coming to an end, and so is its tiered system for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city’s renewed indoor mask mandate was once again scrapped Friday, with health officials opting for a “strong recommendation” on masks instead. Also going away is the self-imposed metrics used to determine what pandemic restrictions the city would take in response to rising cases and hospitalizations.
“Response levels worked as intended and helped act as an early warning system to level off this current rise in cases,” Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said in a written statement Friday. “People responded by being careful even prior to the mandate, and so we believe that a strong recommendation is adequate rather than a mandate at this stage of the pandemic.”
The announcement came on the same day that the city removed a reimposed indoor mask mandate that health officials previously said was needed due to rising infections and hospitalizations.
The reimposed order lasted only four days.
"Due to decreasing hospitalizations and a leveling of case counts, the City will move to strongly recommending masks in indoor public spaces as opposed to a mask mandate," a spokesperson with the Philadelphia Health Department told NBC10 Thursday night. "Given the latest data, the BOH voted to rescind the mandate."
If there is another severe strain of COVID-19 or if infections again rise dramatically, the health department could consider another mask mandate, but right now the data suggests a recommendation will suffice, Bettigole said.
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The reversal comes only a few days after Philadelphia became the first major city in the U.S. to reinstate its Covid-19 mask mandate for indoor activities as the highly contagious omicron BA.2 subvariant drives new Covid cases higher across the country.
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.”
The health department released data Friday that showed the most recent spike in cases peaked April 14 at 377 cases and the most recent spike in hospitalizations peaked April 17 at 82. Since then, both cases and hospitalizations dropped. The health department said the city was averaging 242 infections a day as of April 21, while hospitalizations dropped to 65 on the same day.
Philadelphia reinstated its mask mandate on Monday after cases jumped 50% from April 1 through April 11, health officials said.
"We have been watching this wave of the pandemic sweep over Europe and it looks like it's coming to Philadelphia now," Bettigole said in a statement Monday. "We need to do whatever we can to make sure that our most vulnerable neighbors and loved ones stay safe. Each and every one of us has the ability to save lives today by putting our masks on and helping to stop the increase in cases."
The city had been at Level 1, or "all clear," after the initial omicron surge receded, meaning that mandatory measures such as indoor mask mandates had been lifted. But the recent uptick in cases driven by BA.2 moved the city to Level 2, or "caution," which required masks.
That tiered system is now gone.
Bettigole said the health department does not currently have plans to impose another system that uses metrics to determine coronavirus response. Instead, she said, health officials will continue to publicize infection and hospitalization numbers with the aim of allowing people to be informed and take their own precautions if the situation worsens again.
Many cities and states lifted mask mandates in February and March as cases plummeted from a pandemic peak of about 808,000 average new cases a day in mid-January to about 35,000 new cases a day this week. But infections across the U.S. have started to edge up in recent weeks, and cities like Philadelphia are experiencing a new surge in cases.
The Transportation Security Administration on Monday said it would stop enforcing mask rules hours after U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, Florida, ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its bounds when it mandated face coverings on planes, trains, buses and other forms of public transportation.
While the initial ruling on Monday lifted Philadelphia's mask rules on public transportation, including SEPTA, the mandate remained in place for other indoor venues, including restaurants, gyms and businesses. Many business owners and residents expressed confusion regarding when and where they had to wear masks.
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.
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.
However, Bettigole said Friday that the lawsuit did not play a factor in ending the latest mask mandate.