Air quality threatens Friday classes, leads Kenney to curtail city services

A person in a protective face mask walks past the skyline in Philadelphia shrouded in haze, Thursday, June 8, 2023.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Citing continued poor air quality, a result of drifting smoke from wildfires in Canada, Philadelphia suspended trash collection and the head of the city’s public schools said the district is “beginning to explore alternatives to in-person learning.”

From Wednesday night into Thursday morning, air quality index measurements surged over 300 – moving into a ‘code maroon,’ during which all residents are encouraged to stay indoors.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cherelle Bettigole said some air monitors reached 500, the highest point on the scale. By Thursday afternoon, the index fell to 169, still enough to register as a ‘code red.’

“We expect that such fluctuations could continue over the next several days,” Bettigole said during a Thursday afternoon news conference at City Hall.

The unhealthy air can affect anyone, though people with heart and lung diseases, older adults, children, pregnant women and those who work outdoors are at highest risk. Officials have urged residents to watch for symptoms, such as wheezing and shortness of breath.

Bettigole told reporters that local emergency rooms have not reported an uptick in patients since the haze rolled in earlier this week.

In addition to avoiding outdoor activities, the city has recommended that residents wear N-95 or KN-95 masks outdoors and shut all windows and doors in their home. Fans can be used to keep air circulating, Bettigole said.

Masks are available at the health department’s COVID-19 resource hubs, located at Bethany Baptist Church, Mi Salud Wellness Center, Mt. Enon Baptist Church, Whitman Plaza, and the Shoppes at La Salle.

Homeless outreach teams have been distributing masks and encouraging people on the street to stay in shelters and attend indoor day programs, Joseph Bamat, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Homeless Services, told Metro.

Members of the public concerned about a homeless individual can call 215-232-1984 to reach the city’s hotline. If someone is experiencing a medical emergency, dial 911.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has halted all non-emergency outdoor municipal work, including trash collection, street cleaning, paving and road repairs. Residents, officials said, should continue putting cans out on the allotted day.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. said he is “considering all options” for classes on Friday and indicated a decision would be made later Thursday. Public schools opened Thursday morning, with all outdoor activities moved inside, postponed or canceled and teachers instructed to keep windows closed.

“I think the one saving grace for today is outdoor temperatures not climbing above the upper 70s,” Watlington said. A majority of schools do not have air conditioning, and the district has previously closed those buildings due to heat.

The Center City District shuttered the roller skating rink outside City Hall and canceled a scheduled performance Thursday night at Dilworth Park.