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Between trash pickup and library closures, Philly government is far from reopened

Despite Philadelphia’s coronavirus safety restrictions being lifted and local government reopening, city services still feel like they’re in the middle of the pandemic.

The swimming pool at Chew Playground in Point Breeze is one of 22 that will not open this summer.
The swimming pool at Chew Playground in Point Breeze is one of 22 that will not open this summer.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Trash collection is routinely behind schedule. Many neighborhood libraries and pools remain closed. Some SEPTA routes are offline or limited. People can once again walk into City Hall but might need appointments for services.

Despite Philadelphia’s coronavirus safety restrictions being lifted and local government offices reopening, the city still feels as if it’s in the middle of the pandemic when it comes to many basic services.

About three of five Philadelphia adults are fully vaccinated, and the city is recording fewer than 30 new coronavirus cases per day. But a range of city services might not return to pre-pandemic levels until the fall.

”The pandemic has long term effects we’ll be dealing with for a while,” Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said in a statement.

Gamble cited factors such as companies continuing to allow many employees to work from home, which has ripple effects, including more residential trash and fewer public transit riders. She said the city hopes to quicken the pace of reopening in September, when students return to school and more companies bring workers back to offices.

Here’s what you need to know:

What’s taking so long?

Each of the services struggling to get back on track faces unique obstacles.

The city didn’t hire enough lifeguards to staff pools amid a national worker shortage. SEPTA ridership is down and for Regional Rail lines may never recover. Library branches still have less funding than before the pandemic. Sanitation workers are calling out sick or injured at extraordinary levels after months of mandatory overtime, according to a WHYY analysis.

“City service delivery was greatly impacted for almost a year and a half, but services are indeed coming back in traditional ways,” Gamble said, adding that Kenney “is satisfied with the pace” of reopening.

But frustration is growing.

“It’s unfortunate to see the city still fall behind on the opening of some vital resources for our communities,” City Councilmember Cindy Bass said in a statement. “These resources may not seem like necessities, but they are when they allow for a better quality of life for all, and citizens should expect more from their government.”

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart acknowledged Kenney is facing many challenges but said operational issues need to be resolved.

”It’s a challenging time, but I think there should be more leadership now,” she said.

» READ MORE: Philly libraries are still months away from returning to normal

Some cities have touted plans for returning city workers to offices. San Francisco officials announced last month that vaccination would be required for city employees. And in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a plan this spring to bring city employees back to work, starting with 80,000 returning at the beginning of May — a move to signal to private-sector employers that they could also begin bringing workers back.

Philadelphia has no plans to require vaccination of municipal employees, according to a city spokesperson. And as of July 1, about 2,200 full-time employees were still working remotely. The city has about 27,000 full- and part-time employees, and many of them, such as sanitation workers and police officers, never worked remotely during the pandemic.

Is City Hall open?

Philadelphia City Hall and other government buildings officially reopened July 6, and city workers who have been remote began a gradual return. That means residents can once again walk into City Hall.

But access to in-person services varies by department. The Kenney administration has directed each department to make its own plans. Some — such as the Revenue Department, which handles tax collection — will continue providing services by appointment.

Residents should check with the department they’re visiting before showing up.

“If members of the public do not have an appointment, there is no guarantee they will be seen or that they will not have to wait to be seen behind those who have an appointment,” said city spokesperson Joy Huertas.

When will SEPTA be back on track?

SEPTA is hoping to return to nearly full service by the fall for all modes of transit except Regional Rail.

Buses, trolleys, and subways are already operating at about 90% of pre-pandemic service levels, although key transit options like overnight trolleys are offline, spokesperson Andrew Busch said. The Regional Rail system is still seeing extremely low ridership and is only operating at about 54% of pre-pandemic service.

“We’re right now trying to balance our service with the existing ridership we have and what we’re projecting it will be in the near future,” Busch said.

Before the pandemic, Philly’s transit system saw about one million riders each day. Daily ridership plummeted to about 100,000 to 150,000 riders in the beginning of the pandemic, before stabilizing around 300,000, Busch said. As vaccination rates have increased, the system is up to about 400,000 riders per day, but SEPTA doesn’t expect that number to rise much more until the fall.

Regional Rail ridership has been the most sluggish and is only at about 20% of its usual volume. SEPTA officials fear it may never fully recover as employers offer more work-from-home options, potentially transforming the system from a commuter rail to one that primarily serves “discretionary travel,” Busch said — such as suburbanites coming into the city for a night out.

What about libraries, pools, and rec centers?

Philadelphia’s 54 library branches are still months from returning to normal operations, despite being cleared by the city’s health department to open at full capacity in May.

Library officials have said they need time to hire more staff and hope to complete that process by fall. The Friends of the Free Library group, meanwhile, is criticizing the Kenney administration for a library reopening plan that leaves the system with less funding and fewer days of service at neighborhood branches than before the pandemic.

The group also wants more clarity and communication about library services and schedules.

”It’s not like there was a consistency before, but it was a lot better than it is now,” said Yvette Hill-Robinson, a Friends of the Free Library cochair.

» READ MORE: Philly residents in areas losing their pool this summer say the list isn’t equitable: ‘Where are these children supposed to go?’

Twenty-two of the city’s 69 public pools will remain closed this year due to the lifeguard shortage.

The pools remaining closed are disproportionately in lower-income neighborhoods. Over 70% of the pools that will remain closed are in zip codes with median household incomes of less than $40,000. Among the pools open this summer, 47% are in zip codes with incomes of $40,000 or higher.

One bright spot for Philadelphians seeking safe havens this summer are neighborhood recreation centers. All 159 facilities are expected to be open this summer, with rec center programming and summer camps resuming as well.