Philly to require masks indoors, unless businesses check vaccine cards

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

An indoor mask mandate is taking effect Thursday in Philadelphia, except for businesses that require all staff and customers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, city leaders said.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration also announced Wednesday that all city employees must be vaccinated by Sept. 1 or wear a cloth and surgical mask while working alongside others. Shots will be required for new hires.

“With the continued spread of the Delta variant here in the region and nationally, we know we need to take some stronger steps to protect our residents,” Kenney said. “The science is clear: These measures will protect Philadelphians and save lives.”

In addition, people at unseated, outdoor events with more than 1,000 in attendance will be mandated to mask up.

Officials cited the spread of the Delta variant and a resulting rise in COVID-19 infections as the reason behind the reimposed restrictions.

Cases have doubled three times over the past month, and the positive test rate has ballooned, from 1% to 5%, said Acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole. Virus-related hospitalizations, now at 118, have more than doubled since July 19.

“I continue to be concerned with the rise in cases and hospitalizations in Philadelphia,” Bettigole said. “We have seen how quickly things can get out of hand with the Delta variant in other states.”

Kenney expressed frustration at the situation Wednesday during a virtual news conference, saying a small group of unvaccinated people are creating an inconvenience for everyone.

“We didn’t anticipate doing this in June and July,” he said. “But you can see the level of immaturity around the country, even from governors and legislatures.”

To date, about 63% of Philadelphia’s population over the age of 18 is fully vaccinated and 77% have had at least one shot, according to the health department.

No capacity limitations were incorporated into the restrictions, and no businesses or institutions will be required to shutdown.

“This is a first step, and we’re hoping that this brings us enough safety that we get control of this surge and not have to do more,” Bettigole said.

John Longstreet, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, an industry group, said in a statement that the new rules put “an unfair responsibility” on business owners and employees.

Staff have little time to put the protocols in place, Longstreet continued, and they “have suffered severe backlash when enforcing” virus-related measures in the past.

“Servers and bartenders and others are used to carding people for age,” Kenney said. “It’s not any different than that.”

A number of businesses in the city, mostly restaurants and gyms, have already instituted a vaccine requirement, checking immunization cards as customers enter the building.

Indoor dining will remain permitted for eateries that don’t mandate patrons be vaccinated; however, people will be required to mask up unless they are seated and actively eating or drinking.

Philadelphia residents who have lost their vaccine card and those with damaged cards can request their inoculation record by calling 215-685-5488 or sending an email to covid@phila.gov.

Bettigole encouraged people to keep a photograph of their card on their phone, and she warned against laminating the paper card because of the possibility of COVID-19 booster shots.

Ahead of the Eagles first preseason game Thursday night, the team said fans will be told to wear masks while in the indoor sections of Lincoln Financial Field.

In contrast to some other government agencies, including the state, Kenney’s administration has not taken a “vaccine or test” approach to mandating inoculations for city workers.

Bettigole said she was concerned about a potential shortage in testing kits if the virus continues to surge. Additionally, the city did not want to give people time off to get swabbed on a regular basis, as that may serve as an incentive to stay unvaccinated, she added.

Officials have not said how many or what percentage of municipal workers have received a shot. Those who decline a vaccine will have to double mask in enclosed spaces starting next month.

The Kenney administration’s vaccine-or-mask mandate came a day after City Council President Darrell Clarke said all members and staff must be immunized before Council’s first in-person meeting Sept. 16.

Exemptions will be provided only for religious and medical reasons, and anyone who is excused from the mandate will be tested once a week.

Also on Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf said about 25,000 people working in state-run hospitals, group homes, health centers and prisons must be inoculated by Sept. 7 or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. Similar to the city’s policy, job candidates won’t be hired unless they have received a shot, officials said.

Everyone employed by the commonwealth who has been vaccinated will also qualify for one additional paid day off starting in October, according to Wolf’s office.

Jerry Jordan, leader of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, repeated his support Wednesday for a “negotiated mandate” for teachers and other staff at the city’s public schools.

Students are scheduled to return for in-person classes five days a week Aug. 31.

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