Given the chance to ask Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole anything about COVID-19 on Wednesday, one City Council member brought up late-night comedian Stephen Colbert.
“They were like, making fun of us on his show,” said Councilmember Allan Domb, “which hurts my pride and everyone’s pride in this city.”
Philadelphia was the butt of Colbert’s joke because it is alone among big American cities in bringing back an indoor masking requirement in response to rising COVID rates.
Still, his ribbing was actually pretty mild.
“Because it’s Philly, people can choose between surgical masks, KN95s, or full Gritty heads,” he said during his Tuesday night monologue.
Domb’s other concern was the number of calls he’s received from residents and businesses complaining about the return of the mask mandate, slated for this Monday.
“What’s going to happen, and I’m concerned about this, is this is going to be a major setback for our people and the economy,” he said during the health department’s budget hearing before Council on Wednesday. “Just think about the weddings that are planned for May, June, and July, that are probably going to have to get moved.”
Domb noted that a 50% increase in cases, one of the data points that prompted the city to resume the mask mandate, is less meaningful if there are few cases to begin with, and asked whether the Philadelphia Department of Public Health would reconsider the mandate. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab has said masking probably is not necessary now, and Anthony Fauci, the president’s COVID adviser, said people could make their own decisions about the protection they need, though a mask may be needed again eventually. Domb suggested a strong recommendation might do instead.
Bettigole shot down the idea. Recommendations just aren’t as effective as mandates, she said.
The renewed mask mandate, which requires face coverings in all city businesses, offices, and indoor public spaces that don’t require proof of vaccination, immediately drew criticism from businesses worried they’ll lose out to suburban competitors. Councilmember Cherelle Parker mentioned during the hearing, held virtually due to COVID precautions, that a large Center City employer complained the reinstated mandate will discourage workers from returning to the office.
“We do have to be accountable to the business community,” Parker said.
Bettigole reiterated that businesses were consulted in February on the data benchmarks — and when they were used to justify the end of vaccine mandates in February and masking mandates in March, she noted, businesses applauded.
“This came from a request from the business community for something transparent and predictable,” she said.
Next week will be the first time the system, which considers data on case counts, rate of increase, and hospitalizations, has triggered an increase in safety precautions, and the health commissioner acknowledged the coming weeks would test its value.
“The metrics that we have are not set in stone, and we plan to review them once we have a look at what’s really happening with hospitalizations,” she said. “We’ll know one way or the other quickly.”
The mask requirement returned as a way to preempt more serious consequences, Bettigole said. She noted when omicron burned through Philadelphia this winter it led to 750 deaths in three months in a relatively well-vaccinated city. The BA.2 subvariant could be 30% to 60% more transmissible than omicron, she said.
The course the BA.2 variant took in Europe made an impression on the health department, Bettigole said, but offered hope. The surge in cases there lasted less than a month.
“We are really hoping this is brief,” she said.
The signs so far, though, aren’t good, Bettigole said.
“Our hospitalizations today are higher than yesterday, and yesterday they were higher than the day before,” she said. “Things do look like they’re starting to happen.”
Cases are still trending up, too. The seven-day average of daily cases is now 166, she said, up from when the mandate was announced at the beginning of the week.
» READ MORE: What to know about Philly’s newest mask mandate
Health experts have said the single most effective intervention to stymie a COVID surge is vaccination. But with few new takers, Bettigole said, the city was ending its vaccination clinics and redirecting its efforts to working with schools on getting more children vaccinated. Just over a third of the city’s 5- to 11-year-olds have received at least one vaccine dose, a number that hasn’t budged much in more than a month.
Though Domb didn’t mention it, Colbert’s monologue also pointed out that Philadelphia shouldn’t be overwhelmed by reintroducing a rule that was in place until quite recently.
“The mandate’s only been over for a month,” Colbert said of the week-long grace period before the mandate went into effect. “How much relearning is there to do? It’s not like every Christmas I go, ‘Why is there a tree in our house?’”