People in Philadelphia could be excused if they felt a sense of whiplash Friday as the city abandoned its indoor mask mandate just days after becoming the first U.S. metropolis to reimpose compulsory masking in response to an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
City officials who had previously stressed the need to head off a new wave of coronavirus infections by requiring people to mask up indoors abruptly called it off after what they said was an unexpected drop in the number of people in the hospital and a leveling-off of infections.
The city had taken plenty of heat for the renewed masking order, with a lawsuit already filed and two of the three leading Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat expressing opposition to it at a debate Thursday night. But city officials insisted Friday their decision was about the data, not any external legal or political pressure.
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“I had said when I announced this that if we didn’t see hospitalizations rising, that we needed to rethink this and that we shouldn’t have a mandate. So that’s what we’re doing today,” the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, said at a virtual news conference Friday.
The quick about-face in Philadelphia comes as travelers across the country removed masks in response to a federal judge’s ruling that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority in issuing a mask mandate on planes and trains and in travel hubs. The Biden administration is appealing.
SEPTA, Philadelphia’s transit authority, dropped its mask mandate this week after the ruling.
Boston leaders this week urged passengers to wear masks but stopped short of requiring them.
Los Angeles County, meanwhile, bucked national trends and said Thursday it will still require masks on public transit including trains, subways, buses, taxis and rideshares. Cases have risen in the past week and hospitalizations have plateaued after falling the previous two months.
In Philadelphia, the restaurant industry had complained that workers would bear the brunt of customer anger over the new rules, while several businesses and residents filed suit in state court to get it thrown out. Few masks were worn at a Philadelphia 76ers’ home playoff game this week.
City officials said their decision to rescind the mandate, just days after it had gone into effect on Monday, was based on the numbers, even though daily fluctuations are common.
Hospitalizations peaked at 82 on Sunday and have since drifted down, to 65 on Thursday, according to the Department of Public Health. New confirmed infections reached a peak of 377 on April 14 but have since leveled off. City health officials said that was enough to convince them that mandatory masking was no longer needed.
“It is a very short span of time, because that’s the span of time we needed to see what was going to happen next,” Bettigole said.
People evidently heeded the city’s April 11 announcement that masking would once again be required in indoor public spaces, she said, helping drive down the numbers.
“I think what we’ve seen is Philadelphians really paying attention to public health, and doing what they needed to do,” said Bettigole, noting that surrounding cities and states are continuing to see increases in case numbers and hospitalizations.
Along with ditching the mask mandate, the city is also getting rid of its metrics-based COVID-19 response system, in place since February, that automatically triggered indoor masking and other restrictions in response to rising caseloads, hospitalizations and positivity rates.
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