Back to normal? Philly is getting closer

School District of Philadelphia leaders said that they plan to bring back all students for in-person classes in August.
REUTERS/Hannah Beier

A return to normal could be on the horizon, or even closer.

Philadelphia’s recovery had, up until recently, seemed to stop and start, as periodic spikes in coronavirus cases created setbacks. Recent attempts to reopen after 14 months of pandemic life appear to have a greater sense of permanence.

From SEPTA to the School District of Philadelphia, the city’s institutions are setting up a timeline for dropping COVID-19 protocols implemented in the early stages of the pandemic.

On Friday, offices, bowling alleys, museums and outdoor pools in Philadelphia will be permitted to operate without capacity restrictions, and, in most settings, including restaurants, social distancing can be reduced from 6 to 3 feet.

Bar-goers will be able to grab an alcoholic drink without ordering food, and gyms will be allowed to open at 75% capacity.

In addition, Philadelphia will remove its mask wearing mandate for outdoor gatherings, though officials are still recommending masks for unvaccinated residents.

The remainder of the city’s occupancy limits will be lifted June 11, along with the indoor masking requirement, as long as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to trend in the right direction.

BACK ON THE BUS

SEPTA, meanwhile, is getting rid of its capacity restrictions on vehicles June 1. Drivers have been limiting normal-sized buses to 20 riders.

“Removing vehicle capacity limits to meet increased ridership demand is a major step in the region’s recovery,” Leslie Richards, the authority’s general manager, said in a statement earlier this week.

Masks will still be required aboard vehicles.

Last week, SEPTA debuted an online dashboard that predicts how many seats will be available on a bus route when it reaches a particular stop at a specific time. It’s partially to aid riders who might be hesitant to jump back on public transportation.

SCHOOL BELLS RING

School District of Philadelphia leaders said Wednesday that they plan to bring back all students for in-person classes five days a week beginning in August.

“The full reopening of schools is a day we’ve been waiting for,” Mayor Jim Kenney said at a press briefing.

Superintendent William Hite said a full reopening is predicated on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxing its 3-foot distancing guidance for schools. Some crowded city schools would not be able to accommodate all students with that spacing.

There’s an expectation that the CDC will be reviewing its recommendation for schools in the coming weeks, according to Hite.

District families have, over the past two months, been offered a hybrid option, in which students attend a mix of virtual and face-to-face classes, though most 10th, 11th and 12th graders have had to remain 100% virtual.

Hite said his team is working on the details of an all-digital model the next school year for families who might need it. The hybrid method, he added, is “not a sustainable instructional option” and won’t be offered.

Any children enrolled in the 100% virtual program would have dedicated educators who are not also teaching kids in-person, which is the case for the hybrid model, officials said.

VISITORS ALLOWED

In other news, the state prison system will be allowing in-person visits starting on Saturday for the first time in more than a year.

It will be a phased-in approach, with the Laurel Highlands, Waymart, Muncy and Cambridge Springs correctional institutions, as well as the Quehanna Boot Camp, opening for visitors during the first round.

In-person visits remain suspended within the city’s jail system, though there are discussions ongoing about when they will be able to resume, a spokesperson from Mayor Jim Kenney’s office told Metro.

Increasing rates of vaccination, as well as the decline in COVID-19 cases, which is likely related, have been behind the decisions to ease pandemic protocols.

A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS

In Philadelphia, more than 633,000 residents, or about half of the city’s over-16 population, is at least partially vaccinated, according to the Department of Public Health.

In Philadelphia, about half of the city’s over-16 population is at least partially vaccinated. PHOTO: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

About 70% of employees at the University of Pennsylvania Health System are vaccinated, though the hospital network said this week that it will require them to get a shot by Sept. 1.

Anyone hired starting in July will have to show proof of vaccination or get inoculated two weeks before their first day, health system officials said. Staff may only get out of the mandate if they are approved for a medical or religious exemption.

A Penn Medicine spokesperson said the organization wanted “to take the lead in requiring employee vaccinations to protect our patients and staff and to set an example to the broader community.”

Penn and many other health networks have for years required staff to get a flu shot.

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