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Philly businesses take Mayor Kenney’s mask mandate mostly in stride

Philadelphia tells its businesses that it's back to masks. The city's covid cases have spiked more than seven-fold over the last month as businesses and institutions seek to resume normality.

A person on their phone at Reading Terminal Market in Center City on Wednesday.
A person on their phone at Reading Terminal Market in Center City on Wednesday.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Reactions among businesses to Philadelphia’s move requiring masks indoors were muted Wednesday, amid concerns over how to implement the policy and whether customers would balk at a requirement that many had thought was gone for good.

Weavers Way Co-op, which operates stores in Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill, and Ambler, reimposed a mask mandate for employees on Aug. 2 and encouraged shoppers to wear the face coverings regardless of vaccination status, but some customers complained, said Jon Roesser, co-op manager.

“We had a few outliers, we have some anti-maskers who give us a hard time, but the overwhelming majority of people just shrug their shoulders and put on their masks,” he said. “We’re happy that it’s now the city mandating it. It makes our life so much easier when it comes to customers, just be able to say `Yeah this is a public health mandate. It’s not really up to us individuals.’”

Philadelphia COVID-19 cases have spiked more than seven-fold over the last month just as businesses, nonprofits, culture venues, and colleges planned to return to more normal operations this fall.

Before that happens, though, the Delta variant has to be tamed, health officials said.

Starting 12:01 am Thursday, masks will be required indoors at all Philadelphia businesses and institutions that do not require vaccination for employees and patrons, city officials announced Wednesday. Masks will also be required in all outdoor, unseated gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

» READ MORE: Should you laminate your vaccination card? What if you lose it? Here are the dos and don’ts.

In addition, more city health-care institutions are mandating vaccinations for staffers as Jefferson Health and Thomas Jefferson University did this week. It joined such peers as Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Health System, Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, and Virtua Health.

Retailers and law firms also are considering mandatory vaccinations for employees, officials said. The Ballard Spahr law firm, with 500 lawyers and staff, confirmed that it would require a proof of vaccination for employees by Oct. 4 when the firm’s offices fully open. Guests to the firm’s offices also will need proof of vaccinations.

Kathy Sutton, co-owner with her husband Charles of GTown Tees, a custom apparel firm in Germantown, said that “maybe it has taken a little too long for this policy to come together,” given the danger of the Delta variant.

City data show there have been 159,070 COVID cases and 3,781 deaths since the pandemic began.

“Not a hardship,” Wendell Young, president of UFCW Local 1776, said Wednesday of the mask mandate. The local represents about 35,000 workers, mostly in Pennsylvania, including retail employees at Acme, Rite Aid and state liquor stores.

“It’s necessary to get us past this pandemic,” he said, predicting that it was only a matter of time before the Delta variant spread more rapidly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Philadelphia supermarkets and other retailers will have to make masks available to customers, he said. Stores also may have to employ more people to enforce the mandate. “You can’t smoke in a grocery store because second-hand smoke is dangerous. It’s the same thing with COVID,” he said.

Wawa spokeswoman Lori Bruce said the chain was not planning to ask customers for vaccination status. “We are communicating the new Philadelphia mask requirement through signage at all of our Philadelphia stores and offering anyone who needs one a free mask,” she wrote. “Chainwide, our Wawa associates have been required to wear masks inside of our stores since Aug. 4.”

Even so, there are concerns. The head of the state restaurant association warned on Wednesday that the updated city mask policy could lead to difficult situations for employees dealing with customers who don’t want to wear masks.

“Mitigation efforts should not put business owners and operators in a position to choose between a fully vaccinated staff and customer base, or masks for all,” John Longstreet, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said in a statement Wednesday. “This puts an unfair burden of verification on employees with no time to train or implement protocols. Over this past year, restaurant workers have suffered severe backlash when enforcing those rules.”

At Philadelphia International Airport, the city’s announcement won’t change anything — for now. Under federal rules from the Transportation Security Administration, PHL already requires passengers to wear masks inside the airport, even if they’re vaccinated. Exceptions are allowed when passengers are eating or drinking, and children under age 2 don’t have to wear masks.

The mask requirement for travelers “is consistent across restaurants, boarding areas, security, baggage claim — all indoor locations,” said PHL spokesperson Florence Brown. TSA’s mask mandate is set to expire Sept. 13. At that point, the airport “will need to reevaluate its masking policies in coordination with the city,” Brown said.

The counties outside Philadelphia have less restrictive rules. At Weavers Way’s store in Ambler, Montgomery County, masks are voluntary. “It doesn’t seem like the political will is there for the State Department of Health to follow” the city’s lead, Roesser said.

He said the two city stores posted signs Wednesday with the new mask guidance in anticipation of the mayor’s announcement. The co-op also provides disposable masks for customers who forgot to bring one.

WSFS, the largest bank based in the Philadelphia area with branches in the city and suburbs, said customers and employees in its Philadelphia branches will have to wear masks under the new guidelines, whether or not they have been vaccinated.

At the Reading Terminal, a public market with 70 food merchants, an official said “we are working to better understand the mask mandate as it relates to our specific environment.” Masks had been recommended but not required at the market, he said. The market’s new policy would be effective for business on Thursday, the official said.

Staff writers Catherine Dunn, Joseph N. DiStefano, Christian Hetrick, Andy Maykuth and Harold Brubaker contributed to this article.