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As delta continues to spread, some Philadelphians embrace city’s new mask mandate

“Everyone should mask up,” said one Temple University student. “It’s so unpredictable right now."

People with and without masks wait in line to order food and enjoy the weather at Spruce Street Harbor Park on Saturday. This is the first weekend of the city’s new mask mandate.
People with and without masks wait in line to order food and enjoy the weather at Spruce Street Harbor Park on Saturday. This is the first weekend of the city’s new mask mandate.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

On the first weekend of Philadelphia’s reinstated indoor mask mandate, more masks could be seen covering faces inside businesses than in recent weeks, and even on downtown streets.

Outdoors, where people can avoid masks, restaurant tables were busy early Saturday evening, and Spruce Street Harbor Park was crowded with people enjoying the warm weather. Though most were mask-free, many carried masks on their wrists or under their chins while they ate or drank.

The new mandate requires masks to be worn in all indoor businesses except those that require proof of vaccination for entry. Philadelphians also must wear masks at any non-seated outdoor events with more than 1,000 people.

“I agree with it,” Steven Badillo, 24, said of the city’s mandate as he sat on a ledge at Harbor Park with friends. “Cases are climbing, and it’s a big city.”

The Northern Liberties resident said he thought the city should have waited longer before deciding whether to lift its previous mask mandate, and said he would support more businesses requiring proof of vaccination.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about Philly’s new COVID-19 vaccine and mask requirements

The city’s policy, announced Wednesday, came as new mandates regarding masks and vaccination are being implemented nationwide, as public officials try to boost vaccination numbers and navigate the uncertainty caused by the spread of the delta variant.

In New York and San Francisco, vaccination will be required to dine in restaurants; Philadelphia officials said they were trying to avoid such a mandate, at least while case counts remain relatively low, out of concern that it would severely impact businesses, particularly small ones.

Because the city’s mask mandate allows patrons of restaurants and bars to take off their masks while eating and drinking, it doesn’t dramatically alter the dining landscape — though a growing number of restaurants are choosing to require proof of vaccination instead of masks.

Still, as health officials desperately try to persuade the unvaccinated to get the shot, the public must change its habits yet again.

“Every time it gets clearer, something comes back,” said Scarlet Garcia, 17, saying that made her nervous. She got vaccinated the first day she was able to — “I was not playing” — and said more people should do their part.

Of people eligible — those age 12 and older — 76% in Pennsylvania have gotten at least one dose and 62% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Philadelphia, counting only adult residents, nearly 78% have at least one dose and 64% are fully vaccinated.

The number of shots administered is going up, with a small increase in pace in recent weeks, as more people decide the moment is right.

Jayea Pearson, who was eating with Garcia in the park, got vaccinated just two weeks ago with family who became worried about the spread of delta and decided: “It was just time.”

The two Philadelphia high school seniors were emphatic in support of the mask mandate.

“I’m absolutely on board with it,” said Garcia. “If people aren’t vaccinated, they can’t complain.”

The teens said they were worried about the rise in cases and whether it could threaten back-to-school plans, and whether life was ever going to get back to normal.

“I wish that we were moving in a better direction,” said Pearson, 17, “but if this is what needs to be done… then let’s do it.”

» READ MORE: Swag bags and a coronavirus Cupid: How the region hopes to persuade millennials to get their shots

Outside the city, the rest of Pennsylvania is not under a mask mandate, and the Wolf administration has said it was not considering reinstating one. However, the state Department of Health and the CDC recommend wearing masks indoors, as substantial or high spread of the virus is found in every county statewide (except one, Sullivan County, which was categorized with low transmission).

Temple University student Teddy Caplan, who was lounging in a hammock at Harbor Park, said he wished he “could scream into a microphone” to tell everyone to get vaccinated.

“Everyone should mask up,” said the 21-year-old. “It’s so unpredictable right now. As a student, it’s still really scary. I encounter a lot of people that aren’t sure of being vaccinated.”

Though the Mid-Atlantic has not been hit as hard by delta-driven outbreaks as other parts of the country, the number of new cases reported each day is still rising in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania reported more than 2,000 new cases in one day for the first time since early May, and the seven-day average on Friday was 1,762 new daily cases — compared with 228 a month earlier, according to an Inquirer data analysis. New Jersey’s increase is about the same.

» READ MORE: Will Philly’s new mask mandate curb the pandemic surge? Scientists weigh in.

On Wednesday, when the city’s mask policy was announced, Philadelphia was averaging about 180 new cases a day — a rate that had doubled three times in the last month.

Ariel Feldman, 22, was enjoying Saturday at Spruce Street with a berry-red mask on. She sat on a concrete ledge with a friend, a bucket of crab fries between them.

Visiting for the weekend from Pittsburgh, Feldman said she thought the city’s mask mandate was a good idea and would be advisable in Pittsburgh or all of Pennsylvania.

“People should try to put others before themselves,” she said. “You never know if you expose someone else to the virus what underlying conditions they might have or whether they might live with someone who’s elderly.”

She and her friend kept their masks on as they chatted near the park’s food trucks, a stream of foot traffic passing them.

“Any time I’m in a crowd, I just feel nervous,” Feldman said, “and having one more layer of protection, it just makes me feel better.”