Philadelphia

Philly Restaurants No Longer Required to Check People's Vax Status

Like other cities, Philadelphia has recently seen a marked decline in cases after a massive spike driven by the more transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19

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Restaurants and bars in Philadelphia will no longer be required to check customers' COVID-19 vaccination status, but there is no guarantee newly eased pandemic restrictions won’t be reimplemented in the future, the city's top health official said Wednesday.

Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said the city will relax the requirement for restaurants based on a continued decline in infections and hospitalizations. The change takes effect immediately and applies to all establishments that serve food or drinks, including bars and eateries inside sports stadiums. Masks, however, will stick around for now.

“While we are not done with COVID, and in no way are we declaring the end to the fight against the pandemic, I am glad that we have reached a point where we know much, much, much more about this virus and which strategies will help us manage its spread,” Mayor Jim Kenney said.

The news comes after neighboring states began relaxing their own rules and just weeks after Bettigole said it would “probably” take months for Philadelphia to follow suit, at least when it came to masking.

Philadelphia will continue with its mask requirement for now. However, if conditions continue to improve, and barring another spike in cases or a new dangerous variant, mask restrictions could be lifted within weeks, Bettigole said.

She noted how effective masks have been in keeping infections down in the Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the nation.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen that COVID-19 cases track with poverty, and we’ve seen people of color experience the worst outcomes. So, it is particularly striking that since the mask mandate in Philadelphia was implemented in mid-August (of 2021), the city has generally seen lower case rates than the surrounding counties, each of which is more affluent and less diverse than Philadelphia,” Bettigole said.

In New Jersey and Delaware last week, governors of both states announced a timeline for the end of masking requirements in public schools and indoor public spaces.

In Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, masking mandates were lifted weeks ago. In all three states, however, businesses and school districts are allowed to exercise their own rights to require masks.

In Philadelphia, masks are required in all public indoor settings, including in schools. However, businesses that require proof of vaccination do not have to require masks.

Bettigole on Wednesday unveiled a new, four-tiered system that will be used to decide when the city may relax – or tighten – COVID-19 restrictions. Each tier takes into consideration case counts, hospitalizations, test positivity rate and the rate of change in cases.

The tiers and restrictions for each tier are as follows:

  • Extreme Caution: Proof of vaccination required for places that serve food or drink; masks required in indoor public places.
    • This tier applies if two or more of the following are true:
      • Average new cases per day is 500 or more
      • Hospitalizations are 500 or more
      • Percent positivity is 10% or more
      • Cases have risen by more than 50% in the previous 10 days
  • Caution: Proof of vaccination or negative test within 24 hours for places that serve food or drink; masks required in indoor public places  
    • This tier applies if three or more of the following are true:
      • Average new cases per day is less than 500
      • Hospitalizations are under 500   
      • Percent positivity is under 10% 
      • Cases have not risen by more than 50% in the previous 10 days 
  • Mask Precautions: No vaccine requirement for places that serve food or drink; masks required in indoor public places
    • This tier applies if three or more of the following are true:
      • Average new cases per day is less than 225 (This is approximately the cut-off between CDC’s “high” and “substantial” levels of transmission) 
      • Hospitalizations are under 100 
      • Percent positivity is under 5% 
      • Cases have not risen by more than 50% in the previous 10 days 
  • All Clear: No vaccine requirement for places that serve food or drink; No mask requirement (except in schools, healthcare institutions, congregate settings, and on public transportation) 
    • This tier applies if three or more of the following are true:
      • Average new cases per day is less than 100 (This is approximately the cut-off between CDC’s “substantial” and “moderate” levels of transmission) 
      • Hospitalizations are under 50 
      • Percent positivity is under 2% 
      • Cases have not risen by more than 50% in the previous 10 days 

Philadelphia currently finds itself in the “mask precautions” tier and could possibly move into the “all-clear” phase in a matter of weeks if conditions continue to improve, Bettigole said. However, the city will retain the ability to reimpose tougher restrictions should conditions deteriorate.

“It does depend (on) what other variants emerge. So, I can’t promise that we won’t have to reinstitute these restrictions after we roll them back if we were to have a severe new variant. That could happen,” the health commissioner said.

Like other cities, Philadelphia has recently seen a marked decline in cases after a massive spike driven by the more transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19.

In December of last year and January of this year, Philadelphians were getting infected at the highest rate since the pandemic began. Reported cases peaked during the week of Jan. 2, when 24,183 new infections were confirmed and another 3,543 were listed as probable, according to data compiled in the city’s COVID-19 dashboard.

The picture is a lot different now.

As of Tuesday, Philadelphia was averaging 189 new infections a day over the last two weeks, according to Bettigole. The city said also that 80.3% adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and more than 95% of Philadelphia adults have received at least one dose of vaccine.

Currently, children as young as five years old are allowed to be vaccinated. Nearly 53% of 5-11-year-olds had received at least one dose as of Monday, according the city. Meanwhile, 74.4% of people 12 and older were fully vaccinated, while 90.2% had received at least one shot.

Starting this week, the city will offer $100 gift cards to incentivize people to get vaccinated. Philadelphia residents who complete their COVID-19 vaccine series at department of public health community clinics will have the option of receiving their money through a digital gift card or a physical gift card that arrives in the mail, Bettigole said.

The money comes from a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. she added. The program is tentatively scheduled to run for six weeks.

Kenney bluntly stressed the importance of vaccines and other precautions in the city’s fight against the virus.

“My hope is that within the next month or so we’ll kind of be back to normal. Here’s the bottom line: get vaccinated, get boosted and wear your damn mask,” the mayor said.

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