The city of Philadelphia's health department on Thursday voted to end the citywide indoor mask mandate that went into effect Monday, abruptly changing policy after health officials said there was a concerning rise in COVID-19 cases.
Philadelphia health officials now say that coronavirus cases have leveled off and hospitalizations have decreased, so masks will not be required indoors. The board of health voted to rescind the mask mandate on Thursday.
"Due to a recent leveling-off of case counts and a decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the City, masks are strongly recommended, but are no longer required in public indoor settings, with the exception of healthcare and congregate settings," Philadelphia Public Health said Friday.
"The Health Department strongly recommends residents & visitors wear a mask in indoor public settings, and get vaccinated and/or boosted if you’re eligible."
Just eleven days ago on April 11, Philadelphia health officials raised the city's COVID-19 response level to "Mask Precautions," becoming the first major U.S. city to reinstate mask-wearing in public at this stage of the pandemic.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said at the time that coronavirus cases had increased by more than 50% in a 10-day period over the week before, warning of the possibility of a "new COVID wave."
Moving to "Mask Precautions" meant that face masks were required for all indoor public spaces, including school and child care settings, businesses, restaurants, and government buildings, the health department said last week. City residents were asked to report any businesses that did not comply to authorities.
At a press conference Friday, Bettigole answered questions from reporters on the "yo-yo nature" of the health department's mask mandate reversal.
"This is not a temporary back and forth that we're doing," Bettigole insisted. She claimed without providing evidence that people obeying the mask mandate over the last five days contributed to the decrease in hospitalizations.
"What looks like happened after that announcement on the 11th is that people actually did take heed. There's not a way that we would have seen a decrease in hospitalization we're seeing over the course of this week just based on enforcement starting on the 18th," she said.
"We don't feel like the mandate is necessary at this point. We're not saying, hey, we're out of the metrics, we could go back next week. We're saying we're not mandating at this point, which means we're not using that ability to kind of trigger a mandate based on the metrics we announced in February."
Asked if the about-face undermined public confidence in health officials, Bettigole claimed that Philadelphians "are really paying attention to public health," and that's why the predicted COVID wave never manifested and the mask mandate was lifted.