Philly pulls back limits on restaurants, indoor events

REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

Weddings and other indoor catered events, which have been prohibited in Philadelphia for more than a year, can resume next week, and other restrictions will also be eased as cases begin to decline, city officials said Tuesday.

Beginning May 7, restaurants that meet ventilation standards can increase their indoor capacity from 50% to 75%, and eateries that don’t fit the air flow criteria can move from 25% to 50%.

The new regulations allow up to six people to be seated at the same table indoors, and the limit for outdoor dining will be 10 people. Patrons will still be required to order food while purchasing alcohol, a rule dropped by the state earlier this month.

Catering halls and wedding venues can open next Friday at 25% capacity, with a cap of 75 people, including staff. That capacity will be bumped up to 150 people May 21 if case rates continue to decrease, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said.

Farley, who has maintained that weddings and other family events are among the most dangerous for COVID-19 spread, issued a “strong recommendation” that attendees get inoculated before going to large parties. He suggested that hosts use invitations to urge guests to get vaccinated.

Those who do show up should continue to wear masks unless they are seated and eating, Farley said. Guidelines do not differ for people who are fully vaccinated.

As part of revised protocols, non-catered indoor events can operate at 25% capacity, with outdoor gatherings allowed at up to 50%.

Farley cited shrinking case numbers in rolling back limitations.

“This epidemic wave may be starting to decline,” he told reporters Tuesday. “The fact that it’s declining throughout the entire region is a hopeful sign for Philadelphia.”

Last week, the city averaged 458 new infections a day with a 5.9% positive test rate, down from the prior week’s 616 daily cases and 6.6%. COVID-19 hospitalizations also dropped, from 551 to 481, over the last seven days.

Officials reported 10 virus-related deaths Tuesday, bringing the city’s pandemic toll to 3,452.

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance advising that fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks while outdoors with small groups of people.

The CDC continues to advocate for mask wearing among large outdoor crowds, such as those at baseball games and concerts.

“It’s a relatively small change, and we will follow those recommendations,” Farley said.

Healthcare providers in Philadelphia have resumed use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, officials said, following an 11-day federal pause as regulators examined reports of rare blood clots.

Farley said the one-shot vaccine was in high demand prior to the stoppage, with people looking to avoid the hassle of a follow-up appointment.

It will be offered at the federally-backed inoculation site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Saturday alongside the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with patients having a choice.

“The risk from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, while it’s real, is very, very low,” Farley said.

“We’ll find out if people are hesitant to use it,” he added. “If people are hesitant about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they have ample opportunity to get other vaccines.”

Montgomery County Commissioners Val Arkoosh and Ken Lawrence will receive the J&J shot publicly Wednesday in Norristown to demonstrate their confidence in the vaccine, according to a statement.

Clinics run by the Philadelphia Fire Department, which temporarily shutdown after the J&J vaccine was pulled, will restart this week, and all city-run clinics are now offering walk-up appointments.

Residents can also click on a red banner on the city’s COVID-19 website to make an appointment at any of the government-run vaccination sites.

With interest in the vaccine seemingly waning, Farley said the health department is increasingly focused on neighborhood clinics. In recent days, the Convention Center, which has the capacity to distribute 6,000 doses a day, has been administering 500 to 1,000 shots.

“In general, having these very huge, very high volume sites around the country, that era is passing,” Farley said.

About 536,000 Philadelphians, or 42.3% of the city’s population over the age of 15, is at least partially vaccinated, according to health department numbers.

CDC data, which includes city residents inoculated in the suburbs and elsewhere, show that 33.6% of city residents and 55.5% of seniors are fully vaccinated.

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