Philly removes restaurant vaccine mandate

Proof of vaccination required upon entry to restaurants in Philadelphia
Customers show proof of their coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccinations before entering the restaurant “Martha”, on Aug. 7, 2021.
REUTERS/Hannah Beier

Restaurants and other entertainment venues in Philadelphia serving food and drink no longer have to make sure customers are vaccinated against the coronavirus.

And the city’s indoor masking mandate could be lifted within a few weeks, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, said Wednesday, under a new tiered COVID-19 restrictions system tied to pandemic metrics.

Officials also unveiled a plan to offer residents $100 in exchange for getting their initial series COVID-19 shots, in an effort to further boost vaccination rates.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration imposed the vaccine mandate on Jan. 3 for staff and patrons of restaurants, bars, cafes, concert venues, catering halls, theaters and indoor arenas.

Shortly after Wednesday’s announcement, representatives from the Wells Fargo Center said the stadium would not be checking vaccination cards for events going forward.

“We’re ready to start getting back to normal, and so are our fans,” said Valerie Camillo, the center’s president of business operations, in a statement.

Bettigole said the inoculation requirement worked. Philadelphia’s case rates, which have decreased dramatically in recent weeks, have fallen faster than those of other nearby counties, she said.

A waitress serves customers at a restaurant at Reading Terminal Market. REUTERS/Hannah Beier

She also credited the mandate with the city’s vaccination rate for children between the ages of 5 and 11, which, at 53.5% with at least one dose, is much higher than the national average for that group.

“It feels unfair to continue with (the mandate) longer than we have to have it,” Bettigole said during a virtual press briefing. “The intent was primarily to stop the transmission of the Omicron variant, and we are there.”

Kenney, at the news conference, expressed visible frustration with restaurant owners who advocated against the short-lived vaccine mandate and other restrictions.

“If we listened to the restaurateurs two years ago, we’d have 2,000 more people dead in this city,” he told reporters. “They didn’t want to close anything down.”

Ben Fileccia, senior director of operations for the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the hospitality industry has been “enforcing the mayor’s mandates from day one” and has worked to get employees vaccinated against COVID-19.

Private businesses can continue to enforce a vaccine policy, if they wish, officials said.

Fileccia encouraged restaurant-goers to check ahead because some business owners preferred requiring the vaccine to enforcing mask-wearing.

Under the city’s policies, patrons are supposed to mask up unless they are seated and eating or drinking.

Wednesday’s changes do not affect masking or quarantine rules for students, which are being worked out through “separate and parallel conversations” with the School District of Philadelphia and other schools, Bettigole said.

Leveling up

The health department’s just-released tiered framework incorporates four levels based on average number of new infections per day, hospitalizations, test positivity rate and the percent change in new cases.

Beginning this week, the city is moving into the “Mask Precautions” phase, meaning only an indoor mask mandate remains, with no vaccine or testing mandates for eateries and other venues.

To get to the least restrictive level, “All Clear,” in which the mask mandate would be dropped, Philadelphia would need to reach three of four benchmarks — less than 100 daily cases; fewer than 50 virus-related hospitalizations; positivity rate below 2%; and infections rising at a rate of less than 50% in the last 10 days.

Barring the rise of a new variant, those metrics might not be far away.

Currently, about 300 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, the positivity rate is 2.9% and the city is seeing around 189 new cases a day.

Spread has fallen precipitously in Philadelphia, from a two-week average of 26,500 cases on Jan. 9 to 3,300 on Feb. 6. The positive test rate was nearly 44% on Dec. 26.

Fileccia praised the levels, saying that event organizers, caterers and hotel owners have been calling for a set of metrics for months.

“Now we have something to work with,” he told Metro. “It allows us to plan ahead. It allows us to book those parties.”

Even under the “All Clear” phase, masks would still be necessary on public transportation and inside nursing homes and healthcare facilities.

The health department plans to release an update on the city’s status every Monday.

Dollars for doses

Meanwhile, anyone who has not received any COVID-19 shots will be eligible for $100 dollars starting later this week if they roll up their sleeves.

Philadelphians receiving their initial round of doses can receive the benefit at a Department of Public Health community clinic, with the first opportunity Friday at the Salvation Army building at 55th and Market streets.

The money can be paid through a cellphone app or a mailed gift card. Funding is being provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the promotion is expected to run for six weeks.

More than 90% of city residents ages 12 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, according to health department data.

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