Since Philadelphia’s new mask mandate took effect two weeks ago, at least 102 complaints have been filed through the city’s 311 line about businesses not complying.
But city officials can’t say how many violations have been found, warnings have been issued, or even the number of complaints it investigated. They say they don’t keep count, and that any inspection reports regarding mask compliance end up funneled into its cumbersome, often tough-to-navigate restaurant inspection database, ostensibly alongside complaints about cockroaches, filthy restrooms, and freon leaks in walk-in freezers.
Business owners at times have chafed at the pandemic restrictions over the last 19 months, but enforcement of the mask mandate is mostly the same as last year. Merchants and companies are largely responsible for enforcing it within their premises, with relatively little oversight or tracking. (Last summer, city officials said they had completed a few thousand inspections and ordered seven restaurants to temporarily close for not complying, but later stopped tracking those numbers.)
Jabari Jones, president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, said it’s unfair for businesses to be held accountable for customers failing to wear masks, and he’s heard from many business owners who say they have “kind of shrugged off” the latest rules.
“There’s just a growing indifference toward some of these mandates,” he said, “because it’s like, ‘Dude, how am I supposed to catch up with all this stuff if you keep changing the rules without any notice or advance conversation with the business community?’ ”
Even the city’s top health official, Acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole, appeared to misunderstand the city’s enforcement mechanisms, stating at a news conference Wednesday that inspectors issue tickets to businesses found in violation, and “I don’t have those numbers but we could certainly get them.” Health Department spokesperson James Garrow later clarified that Bettigole, who started her position in May, misspoke and the city neither issues tickets nor tracks the number of coronavirus-related violations.
Still, Bettigole said the new rules overall are “going fairly well in that many, many more people are wearing masks.”
The mandate was issued two months after the city had fully reopened and ended all COVID-19 restrictions, since vaccination rates had stagnated and the spread of the delta variant caused case surges in Philadelphia and across the country.
Masks are now required in all indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status. Establishments are exempt from requiring masks if they require all staff and patrons to prove they are fully vaccinated. Masks are also required at unseated outdoor events with more than 1,000 people.
Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, said he’s heard from frustrated bar owners in Philadelphia who dreaded the return of restrictions. It’s natural for people to gather around a bar, he said, and it’s a difficult burden for individual bartenders to remind them to stay seated or wear a mask.
“There are a lot of people who are very upset,” Moran said, because “it got very politicized over the last year.”
Whether the same concerns will translate into a surge of complaints and enforcement is not yet clear. The complaints submitted through 311 are forwarded to the health department and their outcomes are not separately tracked, said city spokesperson Kevin Lessard.
Businesses that resist coronavirus mandates can also face litigation from the city. There have been “a few court cases” since last March over failure to comply, Lessard said. But, as with the complaints, he said he could not provide details of the cases or even a tally of how many.
Enforcement has been a challenge for state and local governments throughout the pandemic, often because of low staffing and limited resources, said Caroline La Rochelle, a policy and strategy senior associate with PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“They just were really struggling to try to keep track of any violations while trying to do their regular jobs, often torn in different directions because of the pandemic,” said La Rochelle, who spent time last year researching enforcement of mask mandates across the country.
And some enforcement is based simply on city health officials finding out about events after the fact. Bettigole saw news coverage of the packed Green Day concert held Saturday at Citizens Bank Park, for example, and noticed that people were unmasked. City officials reached out to representatives for Citizens Bank Park, who “apologized and agreed to talk through any future events,” said Garrow.
Bonnie Clark, a spokesperson for the stadium, said most of the concert tickets were in seated areas and therefore didn’t require masks, but “there was a non-seated area that should have been masked.” She said Citizens Bank Park will follow the city’s mandate for future events.
Under the emergency regulation, businesses found in violation of the mandate are first given a warning and an opportunity to correct the issue immediately, such as by providing masks to unmasked customers and employees. If it is not corrected immediately, the business is ordered to close and must pay a $315 fine for reinspection before reopening.
Unless a complaint is submitted, only businesses that sell food are regularly inspected for coronavirus restriction compliance, as part of regular food-safety inspections. And those checks are infrequent; Lessard said the city used to inspect every establishment about once a year, but “the frequency has dropped somewhat” since the pandemic began.
Philadelphia’s restrictions differ from other cities by offering businesses a choice to require vaccination for staffers and patrons. In Washington, masks are again required in all indoor settings, regardless of someone’s vaccination status. And in New York, at least one dose of a vaccine is now required to eat indoors, go to a gym, or enter other indoor places such as concert venues. The New York policy took effect last week; the city said inspectors from “various” agencies will begin inspections Sept. 13 and issue $1,000 fines for noncompliance.
Philadelphia did track its own enforcement actions last year. After restaurants were permitted to open for outdoor dining, city officials reported that seven restaurants had been issued cease-operations orders, and even named those restaurants.
The city can no longer provide such detail, Garrow said, because “operations were standardized.”
“In July of last year, this was a wholly new operation that hadn’t yet been completely folded into the existing Office of Food Protection process,” he said, so closures due to noncompliance with COVID restrictions “were new and much easier to pick out.”
Jones, the West Philly business leader, said business owners are trying to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic and shouldn’t be responsible for enforcing mask mandates.
“A lot of businesses try to avoid confrontation with paying customers, period,” he said. “We shouldn’t be making it harder for them to operate by making them responsible for other people’s behaviors.”