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Masks off: Philadelphia doubles back on mandate

After being the only major American city to reinstate its indoor mask mandate this week, Philadelphia officials say the city is dropping the policy and moving instead to mask recommendations.

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Just three days into a reinstated mask mandate, Philadelphia is shelving the rules on the basis that serious Covid-19 infections are already lower than where they were a week ago.

“I have said since the beginning that we didn't want to keep this mandate if it wasn't necessary,” Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole explained at a press conference Friday morning, citing a steady decrease in hospitalizations over the last 10 days in the city as a marker that the city of 1.5 million is no longer at risk for a rapid jump in cases. 

City officials announced the reversal Thursday night after a virtual Board of Health meeting where members voted to nix the mandate, which the city had announced on April 11 to go into effect April 18.

Bettigole explained that this was based on how local hospitalizations peaked at 82 on Sunday and had decreased by Thursday down to 65. 

“That's clearly not a rise in hospitalizations, and I think it just doesn't justify keeping a mandate in place when we don't need one,” Bettigole said, noting that the department had “always intended to have [the mandate] be as short as possible.”

She theorized that, after the announcement on April 11, Philadelphians began masking immediately. As the department had announced at the time, the number of new cases reported on April 11 marked 142, “more than 50% higher than the 84 average new cases that was reported 10 days ago.”

The system, which was designed in February, Bettigole said, no longer feels “like it’s necessary.”

Starting Friday Philadelphia’s Department of Health will no longer use its three-tier response level system, which automatically triggered the mandate on April 11, and moving forward the department will not impose mask mandates but mask recommendations. Right now, the city “strongly recommends masks,” Bettigole said.

Announcing the change in a release Friday, the Health Department noted that it encourages all Philadelphians to wear a mask in any setting. 

“Businesses and other institutions are allowed to be more strict than the City’s COVID-19 policies, so some businesses may require proof of vaccination or require that everyone wears a mask,” it says. “Schools may set their own mask policies and it is strongly encouraged that students and teachers continue to keep each other safe by wearing a mask. Masks will continue to be required in healthcare settings and congregate settings such as nursing homes and shelters.”

Bettigole emphasized Friday that it seems like Philadelphians are paying attention to the data regarding Covid-19 data, and following masking and other appropriate precautions, such as not showing up to gatherings while sick. She notes that testing before gathering is also important moving forward.

“If there is some awful new variant, obviously then we all have to put our heads together and figure out what is necessary, but we're not planning on coming up with a different metric system at this point,” Bettigole said. “I think it's useful to be able to tell people, in a sort of forecasting way, ‘This is what we're seeing,’ but without the mandate.”

Philadelphia ended its previous indoor mask mandate March 2.

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