With new coronavirus infections at an all-time low but rapidly increasing in recent days, Philadelphia announced Monday that it will reintroduce an indoor mask mandate a little more than a month after it was lifted, making it the first major U.S. city to do so.
In a press conference, Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said, “This is our chance to move ahead of the pandemic.” She admitted that the current daily average of 142 new cases is still nowhere near what it was at the start of the year when the omicron variety was pushing the seven-day average to around 4,000.
“Knowing that every previous wave of infections has been followed by a wave of hospitalizations, and ultimately a wave of deaths,” she said, “it will be too late for many of our citizens if the city fails to enforce masks now.” COVID-19 has claimed the lives of almost 5,000 residents in the last week, according to the city.
The mandate will take effect next week. It will cease when case numbers and rates fall below a particular threshold, according to a representative for the city’s health department.
The judgment comes as cases of the highly transmissible omicron sub-variant known as BA.2 continue to rise across the country.
Although the overall increase has been modest — around 3% in the last two weeks — the surge in cases in Northeastern locations such as New York City and Washington, D.C. has been much higher.
In recent days, certain institutions in the Northeast, including Columbia, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins, have reintroduced their indoor mask policies.
Mitigation procedures are triggered under Philadelphia’s COVID-19 response plan when caseloads or case trajectories exceed specified criteria.
The city has been at Level 1, or “all clear,” since early March, as omicron declined. This meant that most necessary precautions, such as indoor mask restrictions and proof-of-vaccine requirements in restaurants, had been withdrawn.
Masks are no longer needed in city schools, but they are still necessary when visiting hospitals or taking public transportation.
When the city reaches Level 2, where average new daily case counts and hospitalizations are still low but “cases have grown by more than 50% in the previous 10 days,” the interior mask mandate is automatically reinstalled.
Bettigole stated in the news briefing that this is what the numbers in Philadelphia reflect. The decision goes against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation.
The CDC deems Philadelphia to have a “low” community level, based on hospital admissions and other criteria and hence does not recommend mandatory masking.
When asked about the disparity, Bettigole stressed that “local conditions do influence” when making these decisions, and brought up the virus’s disparities.
“We’ve all seen how much our history of redlining and inequities has impacted, particularly our Black and brown neighborhoods here in Philadelphia,” she remarked. “As a result, it makes sense to be more cautious in Philadelphia than, say, in an affluent suburb.”