Just a few weeks ago, Rodrigo Alarcon, who is immunocompromised, was optimistic about going back to restaurants soon, thanks to Philadelphia’s vaccine mandate for indoor dining.
This week, though, the city is poised to enact big changes to the way it determines which COVID-19 safety restrictions to require, sources have said, and is expected to immediately eliminate restrictions on indoor dining.
The possibility is already giving Alarcon, 49, who has a passion for dining out with his wife, second thoughts about going to a city restaurant.
“I’m kind of torn,” said Alarcon, who is vulnerable to COVID-19 because he received a lung transplant in June 2020. “I know that we want to get society to what it was before of the pandemic. At the same time a lot of people who are in the same position I’m in, we kind of look forward to that safety net of the mandates.”
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health is expected to introduce Wednesday a tiered system that uses a combination of case counts, hospitalizations, test positivity rate, and whether cases are trending significantly upward as benchmarks to determine whether businesses that serve food and drinks have to request diners’ vaccine cards, can take a negative test result in lieu of proof of vaccination, or can operate without restrictions, according to sources in the hotel and restaurant industry briefed on the plan. The tiered system will also determine whether masks are mandated for indoor public spaces.
Restaurant owners and the hospitality industry are eager for fewer restrictions, saying they have stifled business. Customers, though, are more ambivalent. Some, like Alarcon, say they’ll feel less safe, while others said they were ready to move on from COVID-19 restrictions.
The health department did not comment on the upcoming changes, but in remarks to television reporters at a school event Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney confirmed new data would be announced Wednesday.
The city has not yet made the specific benchmarks public, but a preliminary set of metrics shared with people in the hotel and restaurant industries indicated restrictions on indoor dining could end this week. The vaccine mandate for businesses serving food and drink began in early January. A mask mandate for indoor public spaces is expected to stay in place for now.
Restrictions in health-care settings, on transit, and in schools and colleges are not affected by the policy change, a source with knowledge of the plan said.
The tiered approach is reasonable, said Jennifer Kolker, associate dean for public health practice at Drexel University, because it gives the public clear markers of when mandates would go into effect, and why. Future surges and variants could increase the risk from COVID-19 in the city again, and creating benchmarks would provide an explanation if mandates are brought back.
“I understand that the health department is wanting to be rational in having clear, tiered benchmarks,” she said.
She was concerned, though, about losing the incentive to get vaccinated that mandates create.
“As a policy person, I would just assume they keep the vaccine mandate in because it encourages people to get vaccination,” she said.
Indoor dining is likely safe, though, at the pandemic’s current state in the city, Kolker said.
As of Monday, the city was averaging 194 new cases of COVID-19 per day, reported 360 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, and had a test positivity rate of less than 3%. Cases have been in decline since peaking in early January.
Using the positivity rate as one of the benchmarks gave Kolker pause, though, because so many people are now using rapid tests at home, and not reporting the results to the health department.
The hotel and restaurant industries had lobbied the city for clarity on when mandates might end, and Kolker said business concerns should be considered by public health officials, who have to take into account not just disease transmission but also socioeconomic conditions and the economy when making policy.
“You can’t have a healthy public and a healthy city if your economy’s not thriving,” Kolker said.
In the hospitality and restaurant industry, the possible easing of restrictions was met with relief.
“This mandate has crippled our industry for the past six weeks and enforcing it has been a big burden for us,” said Saba Tedla, who owns Booker’s and Aksum, both in West Philadelphia. The biggest impact — aside from a 35% drop in year-over-year revenue — was the departure of longtime kitchen staff who had declined to show proof of vaccination.
“It was crazy to begin with,” said chef Lee Styer, who owns The Dutch in South Philadelphia and emphasized that he is a proponent of vaccinations. The vaccine cards are “a piece of paper my 6-year-old son could write on, and to make an understaffed restaurant have to check them is an undue burden.”
A source with knowledge of the plan said employers can still maintain their own restrictions for workers and customers. Ayad Sinawi, a New York transplant who plans to open a BYOB called Mabu this week in Washington Square West, said he was in favor of lifting the mandates, but would consider hiring only fully vaccinated workers, despite staffing shortages.
At area hotels, events and conferences have been migrating toward the Philadelphia suburbs, where there are not COVID-19 restrictions.
“We were seeing the groups that stayed in Philadelphia were losing attendees and others were taking their business elsewhere outside of Philadelphia,” said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association.
The Philadelphia Restaurant and Lodging Association has also seen events at hotels and event venues canceled or postponed due to uncertainty about mandates.
“We have witnessed successful operations without restrictions in neighboring counties, and feel confident that we can follow this path safely,” the organization said in a statement Tuesday.
For tourists and residents taking a lunch break inside Reading Terminal Market, where employees check vaccine cards before people can grab a table, reaction to the news was split.
Patrons like Shea Forbes, 21, immediately started assessing the risk of dining indoors, especially if new variants crop up and the efficacy of vaccines wanes. Forbes, who lives in Cherry Hill and works in Philadelphia, only recently began eating inside because the vaccine mandate added a layer of protection.
“It’s unfair to me who was vaccinated and now I have to share this shared space with you?” she said of unvaccinated people who would become welcome in these spaces.
Stephanie Fagbemi, a 26-year-old pregnant medical student who is recovering from a recent bout with COVID-19, said the mandate was what made her feel comfortable returning to “normal” and eating at the market instead of in her car.
“My concern is that they’re more likely to spread it to me and that I could end up getting really sick,” said Fagbemi, who is still experiencing shortness of breath a month after contracting the virus.
Still, people like West Philly resident Kevin Scott, 60, welcomed a potential “return to normal” with the lifting of vaccine mandates. Businesses and people’s mental health were suffering, he said.
“It’s time,” Scott said. “If you ain’t safe now, you ain’t never going to be safe.”
Camden resident Nick Stola, 31, also wanted an easing of restrictions as case counts drop.
“What was the point of getting vaccinated if you still have to wear your mask?” he said.
People with health conditions that affect their immune response, like Alarcon, have had to be particularly careful to avoid COVID-19, even if vaccinated. His own fear of the virus lessened slightly last week when he tested positive for it. He turned out to only have mild symptoms for a few days. But having had it once, he said, doesn’t make him eager to risk catching it again, and without a vaccine mandate, he may put off going into a restaurant.
“Regardless, I’m still immunosuppressed,” he said. “I think we’re going to venture out probably a little bit later than we expected.”