In late July, as coronavirus case counts fueled by the delta variant surged in Philadelphia, top members of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration began to consider reinstating restrictions on businesses — a course of action that had seemed unthinkable months earlier amid optimism that the pandemic was waning.
Acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole presented a framework for a policy that would both require masks in indoor settings but support businesses that wanted to verify that their customers and employees are vaccinated.
City officials then tweaked details and weighed in on the timing of its implementation, according to a senior administration source who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal process. Kenney pressed his appointees about how the policy will be executed and its potential impact, but did not insist on significant changes, the official said.
All the while, new cases and hospitalizations continued to rise.
The process culminated Wednesday morning with Kenney and Bettigole announcing that the new restrictions would begin barely 12 hours later, at midnight.
“It goes without saying that none of us want to be here discussing restrictions and policies needed to stem the spread of COVID-19,” Kenney said at a virtual news conference, streamed online. “The science is clear: These measures will protect Philadelphians and save lives.”
The announcement came on the same day the CDC reclassified Philadelphia as seeing “high” community transmission of the virus, and just two months after the city lifted its 14-month-long mask mandate and other limits on businesses and events. But the latest restrictions are different, both for the vaccination exception and because they don’t include capacity limits or social distancing requirements. Also new: Unvaccinated city employees will need to wear two masks while working indoors and new hires after Sept. 1 must be vaccinated.
‘Looking for cover’
Despite the recent spike, new COVID-19 case counts remain relatively low in Philadelphia, and the administration did not want to implement a policy so severe that it would unduly impact businesses, such as requiring all businesses to verify customers’ vaccine status or shutting down certain industries, the official said. They were also concerned that an across-the-board vaccine verification mandate — such as the one New York City imposed on restaurants and gyms — would disproportionately impact small, neighborhood-based businesses.
But some companies wanted the city to act, the source said. They told the administration they wanted to establish their own vaccine verification policies but didn’t want to upset customers by doing it when the city had no policy on the issue.
“Some folks were looking for cover. Some folks already have policies like those,” the official said. “We’re thinking there’s going to be a lot of people following behind us.”
The policy, they said, is also meant to be “an enticement to have folks go get vaccinated.”
Still, the news drew mixed reactions from business owners. The city’s regulations are stricter than in neighboring counties and enforcement largely depends on businesses to comply and complaints to spur inspections and enforcement.
“We have to make our own rules, which means they could be different from the restaurant next door, which means they could be different from anybody, and that’s kind of ridiculous,” said Jill Weber, founder of Sojourn Philly, which owns Cafe Ynez and Sor Ynez, two establishments that already quietly rolled out their own proof-of-vaccination policies for patrons. Weber said she is for the mask mandate overall, but with the uneven application of rules and enforcement, “they’re setting us up for failure.”
The policy means masks will be required for patrons and staff inside Wells Fargo Arena, and venues such as the Kimmel Center and Mann Center for the Performing Arts.
The mandate also applies to unseated outdoor events of more than 1,000 people, meaning that fans don’t have to wear masks at Phillies and Eagles games — except when using stadium restrooms, suites, and elevators — but they would have to for the Made in America music festival scheduled for Labor Day weekend. Its organizers announced Wednesday that attendees will also be asked to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
A city spokesperson said discussions are underway about events such as the Broad Street Run, which is scheduled for Oct. 10.
Unvaccinated people will still be able to dine indoors at restaurants that don’t require vaccination for all patrons. But those establishments must have all staff and guests wear masks except when they are seated and eating or drinking. And businesses or institutions that require vaccination cannot admit children who are too young to be vaccinated, Bettigole said.
Businesses seeking to avoid the mask mandate should have clear signage at their entrances indicating they will be verifying customers’ vaccination status, she said. Those found out of compliance will first be warned and given time to correct, then could be forced to close and pay a $315 fine for re-inspection.
Kenney said bars and restaurants are accustomed to asking patrons for IDs. And he said the new regulations are meant to prevent the possibility of a broader shutdown. ”I think the business community’s happy they’re going to be open as opposed to being closed,” Kenney said. “And if we don’t do anything, the possibility of being closed is a much higher percentage.”
But John Longstreet, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, complained the policy was implemented without first seeking his group’s feedback.
“This will lead to confusion and inability to effectively implement, resulting in gaps in enforcement and further resistance from businesses and the public, potentially doing more harm than good,” he said.
Weavers Way Co-op general manager Jon Roesser, meanwhile, lauded the city for adding some consistency to an increasingly patchwork landscape. The grocery store had already asked its employees and customers to mask up again after the CDC changed its guidance in late July. Some customers bristled at the change.
“We had plenty of people say, ‘Listen, in this city, I can go to any restaurant, any coffee shop, any bar, any sporting event, gym, concert, and not have to wear a mask, and only at Weavers Way, you’re telling me that I need to wear a mask,’” Roesser said. “Honestly, it should be statewide or even nationwide. But we’ll certainly take citywide. It’s a good step.”
Philadelphia’s new policy is stricter than the rest of Pennsylvania. State health officials have said they are not considering reinstating a mask mandate.
Gov. Tom Wolf has also declined to require masks in schools, leaving the decision up to each school district. Philadelphia public schools will require it; New Jersey and Delaware have also mandated them statewide.
New rules for city employees
Bettigole acknowledged the new restrictions on city workers — including the double-masking, which she demonstrated during the news conference — does seem “cumbersome.” But, she added, “Luckily there is something else that you could do to protect yourself: You could be vaccinated.”
The announcement comes a day after the city’s largest union for municipal employees, AFSCME District Council 33, signaled that it would not oppose the city if the Kenney administration sought to impose a vaccine mandate on city workers, so long as the policy included exceptions for people who are not inoculated due to religious and medical reasons. The School District of Philadelphia, Community College of Philadelphia, and other agencies are working to adopt similar measures.
The city, however, is stopping short of a full vaccine mandate by allowing unvaccinated employees to come to work.
Philadelphia’s mask rule is also unlike other municipal and state governments’, which have said unvaccinated employees must be tested regularly for COVID-19. Bettigole said the city did not want to use up testing capacity on surveillance testing for employees, and officials worried that sending employees away to get tested during work hours could inadvertently incentivize some to stay unvaccinated.
‘This could all be avoided’
Philadelphia is now averaging about 180 new coronavirus cases a day, a rate that had doubled three times in the past month, Bettigole said, and the test positivity rate has increased from 1% to 5%. There are currently more than 100 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the city, she said, a number that once had dropped to as low as 48.
She cautioned that the new restrictions are “just a next step,” and may change if case counts and hospitalizations keep rising. She declined to provide a timeline for changing or lifting the restrictions.
Kenney, for his part, grew frustrated when asked Wednesday whether even more restrictive policies could be put into place in the future.
“Not if everyone acts like a mature adult,” he said.
The mayor also pleaded with residents to get vaccinated. About 63% of Philadelphia adults are fully vaccinated. Rates are much lower in some zip codes and are lowest among young people, but Bettigole said she is hopeful the vaccination rate could increase enough for the city to stem the rising case counts and escape restrictions.
”Please, just get the vaccine,” Kenney said. “This could all be avoided if we did that.”
Staff writers Justine McDaniel, Dan DeLuca, and Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.