Confronting a middling vaccination rate and a coronavirus case increase that doesn’t show signs of abating, public officials across the region and state unveiled new steps Tuesday to require vaccines or masks in certain settings.
Philadelphia was expected to announce an indoor mask mandate for all businesses — or allow them to go mask-free if they require proof of vaccination for employees and patrons. Gov. Tom Wolf announced Pennsylvania’s first vaccine mandate, ordering health-care workers at state-run facilities to be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing and requiring future hires to be immunized.
Philadelphia City Council became the first branch of city government to require shots for its 190 workers — as well as the lawmakers, all 17 of whom told The Inquirer they are vaccinated ahead of their return this week to in-person hearings. And Mayor Jim Kenney cleared one potential obstacle as he weighs a broader vaccine mandate for all city employees: the largest municipal workers union said it would not oppose one.
The steps, amid a growing nationwide wave of vaccine requirements, created a new patchwork of rules that will affect tens of thousands of public workers, students, and residents but still leave Philadelphia and Pennsylvania without any citywide or statewide vaccine mandates.
Meanwhile, the Cheltenham, Haverford, and Norristown school districts joined the list of those requiring masks for students and staff — as did all of Delaware, where Gov. John Carney on Tuesday announced a statewide school mask policy.
More health-care systems and universities, too, firmed up plans: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is mandating that staff be vaccinated by Oct. 20, and Thomas Jefferson University has set a deadline of Oct. 29, representatives for each institution said Tuesday.
Experts have said vaccine requirements could boost lagging immunization rates, which are hindering the country’s ability to defend against the fast-spreading delta virus variant.
“As well as we’re doing, we’re not doing good enough,” Wolf said in Harrisburg, citing Pennsylvania’s 67% partial and full vaccination rate for the total population. “This is not where we want to be.”
Shots or tests for 25,000 workers
As soon as Wednesday, Philadelphia is expected to reinstate its policy requiring indoor masks for all workers and patrons. An exception will be for businesses and restaurants that choose to require proof of vaccination for their employees and customers — as some have already said they will.
The new restriction will still allow for indoor restaurant dining, regardless of vaccination status, but will require restaurant and bar staff to be masked. The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, warning its members of the city’s expected restrictions in an email newsletter Tuesday evening, said details of the restrictions weren’t finalized.
Kenney and acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole are scheduled to speak at a virtual news conference Wednesday morning; the mayor’s spokesperson declined to comment on possible changes in restrictions ahead of that briefing.
The rise in new cases has also prompted some event cancellations — on Tuesday, the Philadelphia Folk Fest nixed its live comeback, saying the late August event would go fully online-only for a second year.
Nationwide, coronavirus case counts have doubled over the last two weeks, with the U.S. averaging more than 100,000 new confirmed cases a day for the first time since February.
While Pennsylvania and New Jersey have avoided severe outbreaks from delta, cases are still rising, with both states averaging more than 1,200 new confirmed cases a day.
Each had 67% of their total population, including children not yet eligible for shots, vaccinated with at least one dose as of Tuesday. Because the federal government has not imposed a blanket vaccination mandate, decisions about who must be inoculated fall to governors, city officials and private employers.
Pennsylvania was nearly the last state in the region to impose a vaccine mandate for at least some of its public workers; Delaware remains the only one that has not, though the state’s mask directive in schools goes further than Wolf’s policy of leaving the decision to individual districts.
The governors of New York, Maryland, and Virginia have all mandated the vaccine for all state employees. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has instituted a school mask mandate and led Pennsylvania by a week in announcing that health-care and congregate-setting workers who aren’t inoculated by Sept. 7 will face regular testing.
“States around us are doing all kinds of things like this,” Wolf said Tuesday at a news briefing, “and I think it’s the right thing for us to do.”
» READ MORE: Pa., N.J., Del weigh vaccine verification
Under the policy he announced, approximately 25,000 workers must be vaccinated by Sept. 7 or undergo weekly testing. It applies only to health-care employees in state-run facilities such as hospitals, homes for people with intellectual disabilities, veterans homes, community health centers, and correctional institutions.
All staffers hired after Sept. 7 will not have the option of regular testing.
“If you want to work for the state, you have to get the vaccine,” Wolf said of those employees. “If you work here already, we’re giving you the choice.”
SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, the union that represents nurses who work for the state Departments of Health, Human Services, Corrections, and Military and Veterans Affairs, said it supported Wolf’s decision.
“Vaccinations for all will greatly reduce the terrible consequences related to this virus,” said John Berezansky, a Pennsylvania Department of Health nurse, in a statement provided by SEIU.
Wolf did not go so far as to mandate the vaccine for all current state employees, but offered the added incentive of extra paid time off for everyone vaccinated by Oct. 1.
He also hinted his support for private employers’ vaccination policies, saying in a statement that state government must “stand up and provide an example for other businesses to follow,” though he reiterated at the briefing that he did not plan any mandates for the private sector.
Unions weigh city mandate
In Philadelphia, mandating the vaccine for public workers may depend on the four major municipal workers’ unions, all of which are currently in contract talks or arbitration with the Kenney administration.
“We have to be supportive” if the city pursues a mandate, Ernest Garrett, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 33, the largest of the unions, said in an interview Tuesday. Like other union leaders, he said he would push to ensure the city let workers opt out of vaccinations for medical or religious reasons.
The conditional green light from the politically powerful DC 33, whose 9,500 blue-collar members including crossing guards and sanitation workers, is a major step toward the administration implementing a vaccine mandate.
The union representing school bus drivers and other workers, 32BJ SEIU, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers have also signaled support for a mandate as long as there is room to bargain exemptions and work conditions.
Michael Bresnan, president of Local 22 of the International Fire Fighters and Paramedics Union, said Tuesday that the Kenney administration had not discussed a mandate with him and would have to negotiate if it wanted to pursue one.
“We will not tolerate any of our members being disciplined in any manner for not being vaccinated,” Bresnan said.
DC33′s Garrett said that he doesn’t believe the city has to reach an agreement with his union to require vaccinations but that the group would “make sure that the process is done fairly.”
Garrett has been encouraging his members to get vaccinated; he spent 16 days in the hospital in November after being infected with COVID-19.
“I don’t know why someone could see this type of devastation and not want a vaccine,” he said.
Staff writers Kristen A. Graham, Tom Avril, Ellie Rushing, and Dan DeLuca contributed to this article.