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Philadelphia’s new COVID-19 safety standards could end indoor dining vaccine mandate this week

A new set of standards for COVID-19 safety in the city could soon end restrictions on indoor dining.

A pedestrian walks near a Pennsylvania Department of Health Face Mask Required sign posted at the Warwick Hotel Rittenhouse Square in Center City on Thursday, November 19, 2020.
A pedestrian walks near a Pennsylvania Department of Health Face Mask Required sign posted at the Warwick Hotel Rittenhouse Square in Center City on Thursday, November 19, 2020.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s vaccine mandate for indoor dining could end this week, according to sources familiar with new rules outlining the process coming as soon as Wednesday from the city health department.

And if cases continue to decline, the mask mandate could also lift some time later.

The benchmarks would create a novel system where restrictions could ease when overall illness falls and be reimposed in the event of a COVID-19 resurgence. The effect could ease the bite on hotels and restaurants, which have lost significant business during the pandemic, while also protecting people’s health and reducing the burden of illness on hospitals and caregivers.

Relaxed mandates won’t be welcomed universally in the city. Jennifer Kolker, associate dean for public health practice at Drexel University, said last week that she thought states were moving too quickly to end their vaccine mandates. “I would love to see them maintain the vaccine mandate,” she said before the city’s plan came to light.

At the same time, representatives for restaurants and hotels have lobbied the city for clearer standards. Four sources from the industry described the plan, and asked not to be named because the city wanted to keep it private until an official announcement Wednesday.

The new system coming from the health department would measure four key metrics: COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, test positivity rates, and the rate of case increase.

Based on preliminary benchmarks described by sources, the state of COVID-19 in the city this week would warrant an immediate end to the vaccine mandate for businesses that serve food about a month after the mandate went into effect. But masking indoors would still be required.

» READ MORE: Where and how Philadelphia’s vaccine mandate will be enforced

As of Monday, the city is averaging 194 new cases of COVID-19 per day, 360 patients with COVID-19 are currently being treated in Philadelphia hospitals, and less than 3% of COVID-19 tests in Philadelphia were positive. Case counts continue to decline.

The four benchmarks driving this process could change.

City officials declined to comment on the information but have acknowledged that such a system was being assembled.

The system would establish four tiers dictated by the state of COVID-19 in the city. Industry representatives learned of the tiered system in a phone call Thursday.

The tiers are:

  1. Extreme Caution: Indoor masking would be mandated, as well as proof of vaccination for businesses serving food indoors.

  2. Caution: Masks and checks at businesses serving food would still be in effect, but a negative test result no more than 24 hours old could be used instead of a vaccination card.

  3. Mask Precautions Only: No vaccine mandates would be in effect.

  4. All Clear: An end to all mandates, including the indoor mask mandate.

The system would not prevent restaurants and businesses from maintaining their own requirements, and would not affect employer vaccine mandates, a source with knowledge of the plan said, including the city’s own mandate for its workers.

Still to be determined, said the source, is whether safety requirements change for colleges, schools, and health care settings.

States nationwide are relaxing COVID-19 safety precautions as the omicron variant’s surge fades, but city health officials have said they did not want to pin the end of mask and vaccine mandates to a specific date, and wanted a system that allowed them to be responsive to the changing realities of COVID-19′s presence in the city.

Health officials also wanted transparency, allowing the public to understand what standards were being used to impose or withdraw mandates.

In an interview last week, health department spokesperson James Garrow said deciding which mandates to keep in place required balancing the comfort of people at less risk from COVID-19 against the safety of people still at significant risk from the virus. He noted that the city’s high poverty rate meant a greater proportion of Philadelphians have health conditions putting them at higher risk from COVID-19.

The service and hospitality industries have been urging the health department to create a system that would make clear which COVID-19 numbers would prompt mandates, and when they could end. Representatives from the hotel industry asked for a meeting with the health department last week, which prompted the release of the tiered plan.

“Hotels are losing conferences, hotels are losing conventions. The wedding venues are getting crushed because people are cancelling or postponing,” said Ben Fileccia, director of operations & strategy for the Philadelphia Restaurant and Lodging Association. “The goalposts have been nonexistent.”

» READ MORE: States are dropping mask mandates. What about Philly?

Business was down 37% in Philadelphia’s leisure and hospitality industry through the second quarter of 2021 compared to the same time in 2019, before the pandemic began, according to a report last week by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That’s greater than the national drop over the same time period of 13%. The industry is the city’s fourth-biggest job sector, and 76% of its workers live in Philadelphia.

Fileccia and others in the industry said there have been hotels that have lost events and conferences to competitors in the city’s suburbs because those areas did not have mandates.

Based on the preliminary benchmarks the health department shared last week, indoor mask mandates would end when the average daily cases dropped below 50, hospitalizations were lower than 50, positivity rates were under 2%, and there was no significant case surges over a 10-day period.