Proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required to eat indoors, see a movie, attend a wedding, or go to a Sixers or Flyers game in Philadelphia starting in January, officials announced Monday, as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to surge in the city and state.
Anyone entering an establishment where food is served indoors will need to show proof of vaccination at the door as of Jan. 3.
“This winter looks like it could be very difficult,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole. “We have to do something to slow the spread now before it’s too late.”
The announcement comes as Philadelphia’s rate of new cases of COVID-19 has doubled and hospitalizations have increased 50% in the past few weeks — a spike that officials blame on Thanksgiving, cold weather, and indoor gatherings. They are also bracing for the spread of the omicron variant, which is rapidly spreading through other countries and has been found across the United States — including a few cases in Philadelphia.
Rising case numbers have raised concerns on both sides of the Delaware River. In New Jersey on Monday, the 1,650 COVID-related hospitalizations represented an 81% increase from two weeks ago, said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. The unvaccinated constituted 80% of the hospitalizations.
In Pennsylvania, which has one of the highest case rates in the country, masking remains a source of contention among school districts. After the state Supreme Court struck down the school masking mandate on Friday afternoon, a number of districts in the region, including Central Bucks, the state’s third-largest, opted to make face coverings optional as of Monday.
But along with Philadelphia, other local and state governments are adding restrictions; New York’s statewide indoor mask mandate took effect Monday. Philadelphia’s indoor mask mandate remains in effect, and its new vaccine requirement is similar to policies already in place in New York City, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
Mayor Jim Kenney said he visited New York this month and found that it was easy to show his vaccine card. Philadelphia’s current surge in cases requires a similar policy, he said.
“The tipping point was our case counts and hospitalizations,” Kenney said. “We just don’t want to go back to where we were a year ago. And it’s really not that much of a burden to ask people to be vaccinated.”
Boosters aren’t part of the requirement. Proof of a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson or two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines is enough.
The vaccinations will be required “any place that sells food or drink to be consumed on-site,” Bettigole said.
“I’m all for it,” said Stephen Starr, who owns 15 restaurants in Philadelphia and at least a half-dozen in New York City, which implemented similar measures in August. But Jay Ho, who opened Mei Mei, a Chinese night spot in Old City, on 2020, said he feared he would lose customers.
“I’m all about the safety of the public,” he said, “but I’m afraid of the negative fallout.”
In addition to restaurants, affected establishments include bars, movie theaters, bowling alleys, sports venues, concert venues, casinos, food court seating areas, catering halls, and seated restaurants or bars inside the Philadelphia International Airport. Inside establishments such as museums and hotels, guests do not have to be vaccinated but they must present proof of vaccination to enter a restaurant or cafe area.
The mandate means that anyone attending an event at the Wells Fargo Center must be fully vaccinated. At Lincoln Financial Field, vaccination won’t be required for most of the stadium but will be mandatory for indoor areas such as suites.
This won’t have much impact on most music and entertainment venues. Since early October, indoor venues such as Met Philadelphia, Fillmore Philadelphia, and Theater of Living Arts, all are owned and operated by promoter Live Nation, have required visitors provide proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours of the event.
Under the city’s mandate, between Jan. 3 and Jan. 17, people can show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from the previous 24 hours. Starting Jan. 17, only proof of vaccination will be accepted. There is no end date currently planned for the policy, which Bettigole said would be rolled back “as soon as we can.”
But she also didn’t rule out the possibility of further restrictions.
“We don’t know what’s coming,” Bettigole said. “We have winter and omicron on the horizon.”
People with medical or religious exemptions for vaccination or children under age 5 will still be permitted to dine indoors, but must present a negative COVID-19 test from the previous 24 hours to enter a venue that holds more than 1,000 people.
Some institutions are exempt from the mandate, including schools, day-care centers, hospitals, stores, and soup kitchens, or other places serving vulnerable populations.
Individual businesses will be responsible for checking the vaccination status of their own employees and patrons. Enforcement will work much like it has for the city’s mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions, with checks for compliance through complaint-driven inspections and regular food safety inspections, Bettigole said. Noncompliance could mean fines of up to $2,000 per day.
In New York, both the city and the state released apps that allow people to prove their vaccination status by storing photos of their vaccine card. The state’s Excelsior Pass also verifies that people who enter their information are in the state vaccination records.
But Philadelphia isn’t considering its own vaccine app, Managing Director Tumar Alexandar said Monday. He said some restaurants or event operators he spoke with last week mentioned they are in talks with technology companies to help them manage enforcement.
Kenney said he didn’t know New York had an app. He said he simply brought his passport and vaccine card.
“It worked very smoothly in restaurants, in delis, at theaters,” he said. “It wasn’t an issue at all.”
Inquirer staff writers Dan DeLuca, Maddie Hanna, Michael Klein, and Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.