Philadelphia’s Board of Health rescinded its indoor mask mandate Thursday night — three days after it went into effect, and hours after Mayor Jim Kenney defended the controversial policy that made his city an outlier in the national COVID-19 response.
The city still strongly recommends masking in indoor public spaces, city spokesperson Kevin Lessard said.
“Due to decreasing hospitalizations and a leveling of case counts, the City will move to strongly recommending masks in indoor public spaces as opposed to a mask mandate,” he said.
Officials from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health have said from the day the mandate was announced they hoped it would be brief, but they projected it being in place for weeks, not days. The mandate, which required people to wear masks at all indoor public settings, including businesses, offices, and gyms, went into effect Monday.
Lessard said officials will release more details Friday morning.
Thursday afternoon, in a video interview with the Washington Post, Kenney stood behind the mask requirement, even though Philadelphia has been the only big American city to mandate them.
“I have committed through this whole dilemma, this whole pandemic, to follow the guidance of health professionals,” Kenney said in the interview, “and that’s what we’re doing here.”
But the city faced intense criticism from businesses and residents, and raised the level of mandated COVID caution in the city almost precisely as the rest of the country seemed to move in the opposite direction. Health experts have said there’s overwhelming evidence masks play a role in preventing transmission of COVID, but how much is less certain, and some masks, like N95s and KN95s, are more effective than others.
The same day the mandate went into effect, a Florida judge struck down the federal mandate on masking for passengers on public transportation and planes, and SEPTA officials quickly followed suit, saying they couldn’t be in the position of enforcing a federal requirement that no longer existed.
“Our first calls on Monday afternoon when this was all happening were to the city representatives on the board,” said Andrew Busch a spokesperson for SEPTA.
He acknowledged, “It moved fast.”
In the Thursday interview, Kenney griped about SEPTA’s decision.
“I think it was a little bit premature and I would have appreciated a little more of a heads-up and a little more conversation,” he said.
The Biden administration has said it would appeal the Florida judge’s decision.
Pennsylvania Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro called such mandates “counterproductive,” which Kenney, who supports Shapiro, chalked up to politics.
“He is running in a state that’s not necessarily always blue coming from an area of the state that is blue,” Kenney said.
Hospitalizations in Philadelphia reached a recent peak of 82 on Sunday, stayed there through Tuesday, and began dropping Wednesday. The number of people with COVID in city hospitals dropped to 65 Thursday, the lowest figure reported in a week.
Over the last two weeks, Philadelphia’s hospitalization numbers have shown no increase, according to the New York Times COVID tracker, while neighbors Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware Counties have all reported small increases and Chester County’s hospitalizations increased by 18%.
Pennsylvania reported a 7% increase in hospitalizations over two weeks, and New Jersey an 11% increase.
Experts — including the city health department — said it’s unlikely the encouraging hospitalization numbers are a direct result of the masking mandate.
“Hospitalizations follow cases by a few weeks, so whatever is happening now is not related to masking policy,” said Jennifer Kolker, associate dean for public health practice at Drexel University, by text.
The decision to end masking calls into question the future of Philadelphia’s system for determining safety protocols in the health department, introduced just over two months ago. The standards of the tiered system, which uses case counts, hospitalizations, and the rate of case increase to determine whether masks or proof of vaccination should be mandated in certain settings, still indicate a mask requirement should be in place.
The current COVID numbers raised questions about whether the city would even raise its caution level Monday, requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test of anyone eating indoors.
Thursday, Kenney said he preferred mask mandates to vaccine mandates.
“I think it’s more difficult to do vaccine mandates than mask mandates,” he said.
Working with the business community, the city health department established the benchmarks using case counts, increases in cases, and hospitalizations to determine safety precautions.
“Taking this very minor precaution of wearing a mask is easier than slipping backwards into lockdowns and other kinds of restrictions we don’t want to go back to,” Kenney said.
He expressed frustration that businesses asked for transparent, dependable benchmarks, but now some are complaining. A suit has been filed against the city, claiming the mask requirement is illegal.
“I just think that we’re in this environment where people will complain about just about anything that we do or that a government does to keep people safe,” Kenney said.
Philadelphia reported an average of 242 new cases Thursday, a decline from Wednesday but about on par with Tuesday’s count. The city was averaging 94 new cases a day when the health department started advising masking in early April. The increase in case counts over the last 10 days dropped to 49%, an Inquirer analysis of COVID data reported.
Nationally, cases have increased 49% over the last two weeks, though hospitalizations have declined slightly. Rises in hospital admissions typically lag about two weeks behind case increases. In Philadelphia, the increase in case counts over the last 10 days dropped to 49%, an Inquirer analysis of COVID data reported.
Throughout the pandemic, Kenney has described masking as a communal responsibility, a small, minimally disruptive step Philadelphians could take to protect the people around them.
“This nation has devolved into a selfish bunch who want what they want for themselves,” Kenney said Thursday, “and are sometimes not willing to help each other out as Americans.”
Staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this report.