Philadelphia will reopen more than a week earlier than planned, city officials announced Friday, saying they would lift restrictions on June 2 as vaccinations fuel a continuing decrease in new coronavirus cases.
After being in place for more than a year, the limits on capacity and social distancing requirements for all businesses and events will be lifted Wednesday, allowing stadiums, restaurants, and other venues to host crowds at pre-pandemic levels. The indoor mask mandate and 11 p.m. curfew for dining will remain in place, but could be lifted on June 11 — the original date for lifting restrictions — if progress continues, officials said.
The news brought the city more in line with Pennsylvania, which is set to lift all restrictions Monday. And it comes a few days after the state reached a vaccination benchmark — with 70% of its adults partially or fully vaccinated — that experts say means Pennsylvania is likely on track to achieve mass immunity.
Shortly after the announcement, sports teams including the Phillies, who host the Washington Nationals on June 4, said they won’t limit seating capacity next week. And if they don’t do so at Monday’s game, the 76ers could clinch their playoff series at home against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday in front of a packed arena.
Allowing 20,000 fans back inside the Wells Fargo Center is “an important moment for our entire city,” said Valerie Camillo, president of Business Operations for Wells Fargo Center. “At the beginning of the pandemic, the Wells Fargo Center was one of the first and most significant buildings in Philadelphia to close its doors, so our full reopening sends a clear message that our city is back,” Camillo said.
With Memorial Day and the start of summer ahead, the city wasn’t the only place gearing up for more activity. New Jersey’s indoor mask mandate was lifted Friday just in time for the Jersey Shore season; the state’s remaining indoor-gathering restrictions will end June 4. Pennsylvania officials announced Thursday they will lift their masking requirement by June 28. When the state reopens on Memorial Day, 100% capacity will be allowed in businesses and other venues and crowd-size limits will expire.
In both states and the city, declining coronavirus cases have allowed the long-awaited relaxing of restrictions. But the move-up comes as Philadelphia, which has had tighter restrictions than the rest of the state throughout the pandemic, is lagging behind statewide vaccination rates.
About 45% of Philadelphia adults citywide are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares to a statewide rate of 53% for adult Pennsylvanians, a rate officials expect to reach 70% by the end of June.
Not everyone will get the benefit of the early lifting of restrictions. The change will not affect high school graduation ceremonies for the Philadelphia School District, which were already planned for dates between June 9 and 11 with a limited number of tickets for each graduate.
“The events have already been planned out,” said Monica Lewis, a district spokesperson. “At this point, we’re not making any changes.”
School ends June 11 for district students, and there will be no changes to in-person classes before the end of the year, she said.
The changes won’t alter SEPTA’s plans, either: Rider capacity limits on all buses, trains, and trolleys were already set to be lifted on June 1.
“We are monitoring ridership and will work to add some trips where needed,” said spokesperson Andrew Busch. “We expect ridership will continue to grow, but at a gradual pace, so with the capacity limits lifted, we can accommodate increases in the coming weeks.”
Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, which represents nearly every hotel in Center City, was hopeful the change would help hotels, which haven’t been able to host large indoor events during the pandemic.
“Even though it’s only a week’s difference it’ll hopefully give people confidence that they can come to a Philadelphia hotel, that they can bring their meeting to Philadelphia, that they can hold a wedding in Philadelphia, even sooner than what they thought,” Grose said.
Michael Schulson, who owns about a half-dozen area restaurants including Sampan and Double Knot, said the move-up “helps a ton as we can add more tables and get closer to what we were pre-COVID. As operators, we will take whatever we can get.”
But Peter Hwang, who owns SouthGate in Center City, said it won’t move the needle. “We’re finally reopening the indoor seating on June 11th for the first time since the pandemic hit,” he said, “so we’re going to take our time and do it right.”
Other restaurateurs greeted the news with indifference, expressing continued concern about staffing shortages and saying the 11 p.m. curfew remained more of an impediment to a return to normalcy than occupancy limits.
New cases of the coronavirus have continued to drop, as have hospitalizations and the rate of positive COVID-19 tests, said Acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole.
“These are encouraging signs that vaccination is truly turning the tide in Philadelphia. We still have work to do to reach all Philadelphians, but we also want people to celebrate the good parts of life that we get back by getting vaccinated,” Bettigole said.
As of Thursday, the city’s seven-day average for new daily cases was 86, its lowest since Sept. 18, according to an Inquirer data analysis. Weekly case totals have dropped by more than 80%.
“That is promising,” said Jeffrey Morris, a University of Pennsylvania biostatistician.
Philadelphia’s vaccination rate is better than about two-thirds of counties, but it lags behind the suburbs — Chester County has the highest rate in the state, with 66% of residents partially or fully vaccinated — and means more than half of city residents have yet to get a shot.
And a high vaccination rate is most critical in highly populated, urban areas, experts say. This week, City Councilmembers introducing bills to give residents credits on gas or water bills for getting vaccinated said the city needed to act “aggressively” to increase its vaccination rate.
Philadelphia is also still struggling with racial disparities in vaccination rates, particularly among young people. For residents between the ages of 20 and 44, 23% of Black residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, along with 38% of Hispanic residents. About 48% of white residents and 69% of Asian residents in that age group have had at least one dose.
Bettigole said last week that the racial disparity in vaccination was an important reason to keep the indoor mask mandate in place a few more weeks. Many young people of color hold essential jobs, she said, and would risk being exposed to the virus if the mask mandate were lifted entirely.
Officials said they hoped to use the extra time to increase vaccination rates and decrease the racial gaps.
Staff writers Kristen A. Graham, Mike Klein, and Christian Hetrick contributed to this article.