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Those dining indoors no longer need to present proof of vaccination in Philly. Photo: Getty Images

Philly nixes vaccine mandate amid declining COVID cases

A mask mandate is still in place indoors, but bars and restaurants no longer have to check vaccination cards when customers arrive.

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Restaurants and bars in Philadelphia will no longer be required to check COVID-19 vaccinations status of customers, but there’s no guarantee that these newly-eased pandemic restrictions won’t return in the future.

On Wednesday, Feb. 16, Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said that the city is relaxing the vaccination status requirement based on a continued decline in infections and hospitalizations. The change took effect immediately and applies to all businesses that serve food and drinks, including bars and eateries inside sports stadiums.

“While we are not done with COVID, and in no way are we declaring the end to the fight against the pandemic, I am glad that we have reached a point where we know much, much, much more about this virus and which strategies will help us manage its spread,” Mayor Jim Kenney said.

The news comes after neighboring states began relaxing their own rules, and just weeks after Bettigole said it would most likely take several more months for Philadelphia to do the same, at least when it came to wearing masks. 

Last week, governors of New Jersey and Delaware announced a timeline for the end of masking requirements in public schools and indoor public spaces. And in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, mask mandates were lifted weeks ago. 

In all three states, however, businesses and school districts are permitted to exercise their own rights to require masks. 

The city will continue with its mask requirement for the time being, but Bettigole said if conditions continue to improve and there are no other spikes in cases or a new dangerous variant, masking could be optional within weeks. 

Bettigole did point out the effectiveness of mask wearing in keeping infections down in Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the country. 

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen that COVID-19 cases track with poverty, and we’ve seen people of color experience the worst outcomes. So, it is particularly striking that since the mask mandate in Philadelphia was implemented in mid-August (of 2021), the city has generally seen lower case rates than the surrounding counties, each of which is more affluent and less diverse than Philadelphia,” Bettigole said.

On Wednesday, the health commissioner unveiled a new, four-tiered system that will be used to decide when the city may relax or tighten COVID-19 protections. Each tier takes into account case counts, hospitalizations, test positivity rate and the rate of change in cases. 

Philadelphia is currently in the “mask precautions” tier and could possibly move into the “all-clear” phase (no vaccine or mask requirement) in a matter of weeks if conditions continue to improve. 

“It does depend (on) what other variants emerge. So, I can’t promise that we won’t have to reinstitute these restrictions after we roll them back if we were to have a severe new variant. That could happen,” Bettigole said, 

Like other cities, Philly has recently seen a marked decline in cases following a massive spike driven by the more contagious Omicron variant of the virus. 

In December of last year and January of this year, Philadelphia residents were becoming infected at the highest rate since the pandemic began. 

As of Tuesday, Feb. 15, the city was averaging 189 new infections a day over the last two weeks. Bettigole also said that 80.3% of adults are fully vaccinated and more than 95% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine. 

Nearly 53% of 5-11 year olds had received at least one dose as of Monday, Feb. 14, and 74.4% of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated, the city reported. 

“My hope is that within the next month or so we’ll kind of be back to normal. Here’s the bottom line: get vaccinated, get boosted and wear your mask,” Kenney said.

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