With the number of new coronavirus cases low in recent days but soaring in recent days, the city of Philadelphia announced on Monday that it will reinstate an indoor mask mandate just over a month after its lifting, making it the first major U.S. city. becomes who does this.
“This is our chance to stay ahead of the pandemic,” Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s health commissioner, said at a news conference. She acknowledged that the average number of daily new cases, currently 142, is nowhere near what it was at the beginning of the year, when the Omicron variant pushed the seven-day average to nearly 4,000.
But she said if the city doesn’t need masks 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.” Last week, the city reported that the number of residents who had died from Covid-19 has passed 5,000.
The mandate takes effect next week. A spokesman for the city’s health department said it would end when the number of cases and rates fall below a certain threshold.
The decision comes as cases grow across the country fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron sub-variant known as BA.2. While the national increase so far has been relatively small — about 3 percent in the past two weeks — growth has been significantly steeper in cases in northeastern cities such as New York City and Washington, DC. Some colleges in the Northeast, including Columbia, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, have reinstated the mandate for indoor masks in recent days.
Under Philadelphia’s Covid Response Plan, mitigation actions are triggered when caseloads or case trajectories exceed certain thresholds. Since early March, when Omicron quickly withdrew, the city was on level 1, or “all safe,” meaning most mandatory measures — including mandates for indoor masks and requirements for proof of vaccines in restaurants — had been lifted. Masks are no longer required in city schools, although people visiting hospitals or traveling on public transport are still required to wear them.
The indoor mask mandate will be automatically reinstated when the city rises to Level 2, in which the average number of new daily cases and hospitalizations are still low, but “cases have increased by more than 50 percent in the past 10 days.” The health departments spokesperson said the average number of news cases had risen nearly 70 percent in the past 10 days.
Philadelphia’s system “allows us to be clear, transparent and predictable in our response to local Covid-19 conditions,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement after the announcement was made. “I am optimistic that this move will help us keep the number of cases under control,” he added.
The city’s decision runs counter to the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC bases its designation on hospital admissions and other benchmarks, and considers Philadelphia to be a “low” community level and therefore does not recommend required masking.
When asked about the difference, Dr. Bettigole that “local circumstances do matter” in making these decisions, and pointed out the disparities in the impact of the virus. “We’ve all seen here in Philadelphia how much our history of redlining, history of inequalities has impacted, especially our black and brown communities in the city,” she said. “And so it makes sense to be more careful in Philadelphia than, you know, maybe in an affluent suburb.”