Today, we’ve got a special edition of our coronavirus newsletter dealing with a topic that’s on many folks’ minds as the omicron surge continues to subside — the evolving COVID-19 restrictions and mandates in the face of continuously falling case counts and hospitalizations.

With that in mind, we thought we’d give you a quick update on:

  • Philadelphia’s vaccine and mask mandates

  • The state of masking in schools

  • How and why mandates are changing

  • The city’s new tiered approach to COVID-19 restrictions

  • And how you can stay safe as the situation evolves

So, without further ado, here is what you need to know.

— Nick Vadala (@njvadala, health@inquirer.com)

What you need to know

Philly’s vaccine mandate for indoor dining is no more

Earlier this month, Philadelphia dropped its vaccine mandate for indoor dining, which had required patrons to show proof of vaccination before eating or drinking indoors at locations including restaurants, bars, sports venues, movie theaters, and other locales. As a result, you no longer have to show you’re vaccinated at every eating place in the city, but the establishments on this list have decided to continue requiring proof of vaccination to eat or drink indoors.

But indoor masking is still required

Despite a recent loosening of masking guidance from the CDC, Philadelphia still requires masking at indoor establishments such as grocery stores and restaurants in the city. Pennsylvania overall, though, does not have a statewide indoor masking requirement, so masking rules outside of Philadelphia are more case-by-case. Philadelphia could drop its mask mandate in a matter of weeks, Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole has said.

Do kids need to wear masks in school?

For kids in the city, yes. School throughout the region, though, are currently wrestling with when and how to end their own mask mandates. New Jersey, for example, is ending its mask mandate for students on March 7, and leaving the decision up to individual districts. Pennsylvania’s school mask mandate was struck down by the state Supreme Court back in December. Now, in light of the eased CDC guidance, schools across the Philly region are rolling back their masking requirements, though at least one district has been ordered to continue masking to protect disabled students.

Restrictions can change based on new benchmarks

While Philly’s restrictions are changing, it’s not a situation where once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. Instead, the city instituted a tiered system to determine what mandates are needed based on factors such as case counts, hospitalizations, positivity rates, and the rate of case increases. Currently, based on those metrics, the city falls into the system’s “mask precautions” tier.

Looking ahead

So, when will Philly’s COVID-19 restrictions go away for good? Well, no one can say for sure, of course. But we can look at the city’s tiered system to determine where we need to be for restrictions to be rescinded — or what mandates might be reinstitute if there’s another surge.

The city’s system breaks precaution levels into four categories. Those, along with their restrictions and requirements, are:

  • Extreme caution — Most venues require proof of vaccination, and masks are required indoors.

  • Caution — A mask mandate is in place, and most places require vaccination proof or a negative test taken in the past 24 hours.

  • Mask precautions — The mask mandate is in place, but there is no requirement for proof of vaccination (this is our current level).

  • All clear — There are no vaccine or masking requirements.

As mentioned above, city health officials evaluate the level of precautions needed based on case counts, hospitalizations, positivity rates, and the rate of case increases. So, for the pandemic precautions to be totally lifted, for example, we’d have to see any combination of three out of four things: An average new daily case count under 10, hospitalizations under 50, a positivity rate under 2%, and/or cases not rising by more than 50% in the past 10 days. Here are the benchmarks for each precaution level.

However, if those metrics increase, restrictions could return. And increases depend on a number of factors, including whether other variants emerge. As Bettigole said earlier this month: “I can’t promise we won’t have to reintroduce new mandates.”

Safety Toolkit

Despite the changing restrictions, the pandemic is still not over. So, you still may want to take precautions, such as testing, masking and getting boosted (if you haven’t already). We can help there: