Philadelphia easing mask rules

Hughe Dillon

The message from Philadelphia’s new health commissioner: If you’re fully vaccinated, don’t worry.

Residents will no longer be required to wear masks at outdoor gatherings Friday, and the indoor masking mandate will be lifted next month, unless data indicates the coronavirus is on the rise, officials said Wednesday.

More and more states and cities have been easing rules following last week’s guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying fully vaccinated people do not need masks in most settings.

“If you’re vaccinated, if you are two weeks after your last vaccine, you’re safe,” Acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said. “You no longer need to worry about what other people are doing.”

Bettigole’s health department will continue to highly recommend masking for those who are not vaccinated; however, she acknowledged that it is near-impossible to enforce that protocol.

Businesses will still be allowed to institute their own rules and require customers to mask up.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration will drop its indoor mask rule June 11, when it is also scheduled to remove all capacity limits, as long as case numbers, the rate of positive tests and COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to trend downward.

State officials quickly moved Thursday to align Pennsylvania’s guidance with the CDC announcement.

Bettigole said she hopes the extra few weeks gives people, particularly public-facing workers, the opportunity to get inoculated.

Catching the virus is very uncommon for those who are vaccinated, and, even if they are infected, they typically have mild or no symptoms, she said. It’s also been shown that vaccinated people are less likely to pass COVID-19 to others, according to Bettigole.

Children under the age of 12, who are not eligible for a vaccine, should continue to wear masks, she said. For kids who struggle to wear masks, Bettigole recommended taking activities outdoors.

A virtual press briefing Wednesday was Bettigole’s first public appearance since being appointed acting commissioner following the departure of former health department head Thomas Farley.

Acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole PHOTO: Department of Public Health

Farley, who had been the face of Philadelphia’s pandemic response for more than a year, resigned Thursday after he disclosed to senior officials that he had ordered the cremation and disposal of remains from the 1985 MOVE bombing.

Those bone fragments were found late last week inside a registered room at the Medical Examiner’s Office. An investigation into the handling of the remains is ongoing.

Bettigole said that Farley’s sudden resignation should not derail the city’s progress against the pandemic.

“We lost somebody with tremendous experience and commitment to this COVID response, and, I think, we just need to acknowledge that,” she told reporters. “Dr. Farley undoubtedly saved thousands of lives here in Philadelphia.”

“Fortunately, we have a tremendous team of people in the health department who are working on this response,” she added.

Over the past two weeks, Philadelphia has averaged 200 new cases a day, Bettigole said, and health department data shows that the positive test rate decreased from nearly 10% in late March to 2.6% for the week of May 9.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’ve seen clear improvement over the past few months as more and more Philadelphians receive their vaccines,” Bettigole said.

On Wednesday, officials reported 148 confirmed cases, 35 probable infections and five COVID-19-related deaths, bringing the city’s pandemic toll to 3,581.

About 622,000 city residents, or nearly half of Philadelphia’s population over the age of 16, have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, according to the health department.

CDC data, which includes city residents inoculated elsewhere, indicates that 43% of the adult population and 63% of those over 64 are fully vaccinated.

Home-bound Philadelphians are now eligible to receive their shot through a targeted city program, officials said Wednesday.

Jessica Caum, of the health department, said the initiative will refer residents to vaccine providers through a registry system. Officials have been testing out the idea over the past several weeks.

Six providers, in addition to the Philadelphia Fire Department, have been approved for the program, and others are working through the process, she said.

“Our goal is for this process to happen as quickly as possible, but it may take one to two weeks to get an appointment scheduled depending on overall volume,” Caum said.

To sign up, call 215-685-5488 or go to bit.ly/homeboundvaccinephl.

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