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Philadelphia’s revived mask mandate is the talk of the nation, but no other cities are following suit

Universities are starting to require indoor masking again, but so far other big cities aren't following Philadelphia's example.

Patrons of Reading Terminal Market on Monday morning reflect ambivalence over indoor masking.
Patrons of Reading Terminal Market on Monday morning reflect ambivalence over indoor masking.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia is bringing back its indoor mask mandate next week, but so far, rising COVID-19 cases aren’t prompting others to follow suit.

When asked about the city’s change in policy, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he doubted his state would take a similar step, reported.

“We’re nowhere near the levels we were at and I don’t anticipate — I’ll say it even more strongly — I’d be shocked if we put a mandate like that in place in New Jersey,” he said in an interview with News 12 New Jersey on Monday.

Philadelphia was the first big American city to reintroduce masking in response to the recent rise in COVID cases, a move that made national headlines and spurred discussion on the balance between personal responsibility and government restrictions at a stage of the pandemic when many are tired of masking.

Philadelphia’s news prompted a long debate on the ABC morning show The View about whether people and businesses should be able to make their own decisions on COVID safety.

New York City has never had its own mask mandate. Instead it was covered by a state mandate that has lapsed. On Monday, the New York Times reported, Mayor Eric Adams, who currently has COVID, declined to commit to further interventions to prevent the virus’ spread, though the city has seen a nearly 40% increase in new cases over the last two weeks.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia is first U.S. big city to reimpose indoor mask rules as COVID rates rise

“What happens to me personally should not determine how I make policies,” Adams said Monday. “It should be what happens to the City of New York.”

Yet the New York Times found the Philly news interesting enough that it sent out a breaking news alert to subscribers Monday.

Unlike cities, universities are beginning to require masks again indoors. Columbia University in New York and Georgetown University in Washington are requiring masks through spring semester, MarketWatch reported, and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Rice University in Houston have brought back masks too.

The indoor masking declaration in Philadelphia came because of the tiered system of benchmarks the city introduced in February that uses case counts, hospitalizations, and the percent increase in cases to determine which safety interventions would go into effect. A sustained rise in two of those three metrics, in this case the seven-day daily average of cases as of Monday and the 60% increase in cases over 10 days, triggered the transition from All Clear to Mask Precautions Only.

Further increases in cases and hospitalizations could spur further mandates. The next tier would require restaurants to either confirm customers’ vaccination status or request a negative COVID test. The most restrictive tier would allow indoor dining only for people who are vaccinated.

Health officials acknowledged case counts are an increasingly unreliable tool for measuring COVID’s presence because home antigen tests, the results of which typically aren’t reported publicly, have become much more common in 2022. If anything, though, health officials and experts said, the publicly reported case numbers are likely undercounts. The city is introducing a wastewater testing program that is expected to provide a more accurate way to measure the spread of the virus.

» READ MORE: The clues are in the poop: COVID-19 sewage testing is coming to Philly

Philadelphia chose to use both case data and hospitalizations to determine safety interventions, but the CDC relies more heavily on hospitalizations and deaths as determinants of risk and describes Philadelphia’s risk level as low. Chicago, too, is leaning on hospitalizations and hospital capacity as key metrics, that city’s NBC affiliate reported, and the risk status there remains low.

Chicago would not reintroduce mandatory masking unless new admissions for COVID rose to about 10 daily, and COVID patients occupied 10% or more of the city’s inpatient beds.

In comments Monday, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said the city didn’t want to focus entirely on hospitalizations because by the time hospitalizations rise significantly, the virus is already circulating widely. Intervening with masks now, she said, helps protect people who are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Throughout the pandemic, seniors, people with health conditions like diabetes, and communities of color have suffered the most.

The Associated Press’ coverage of Philadelphia’s mask policy mentioned a number of high-profile COVID infections in Washington, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet. That city has also seen a rise in cases that mirrors Philadelphia’s, but CNN reported city officials don’t have plans to change safety restrictions in the near future.

The case increase Philadelphia is seeing isn’t surprising to health experts, National Public Radio reported. In an interview the president’s chief medical officer, Anthony Fauci, did with All Things Considered, he said: “If our pattern follows that of the U.K., which we usually do and are usually about three to four weeks behind them, they are having a significant upsurge in the number of cases.”

Fauci said he hopes that enough Americans are immunized or have immunity through infection to weather the next surge. It remains unclear, though, whether an increase in cases will translate into a significant increase in hospitalizations and deaths — with or without new mask mandates.