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Philadelphia reinstates mask mandate, despite CDC guidance

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Jae Bethel/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Philadelphia will reinstate its citywide indoor mask mandate in response to rising COVID-19 cases, the city public health department announced Monday.

The city is is raising its COVID-19 response level to "Mask Precautions," becoming one of the only major U.S. cities to still require mask-wearing in public. Just last month, Philadelphia had moved to the "All Clear" response level, ending all pandemic restrictions.

The city will provide a one-week education period for businesses to comply with the reinstated masking rules.

"Starting April 18, masks will be required in all indoor public spaces, including schools and childcare settings, businesses, restaurants, and government buildings," the health department said. "At that time, residents will be asked to report any business not complying with the mandate."

At least two conditions need to have been met for the city to return to "Mask Precautions," which is the level 2 tier above "Level 1: All Clear": average new cases per day are between 100 and 225, hospitalizations are between 50 and 100, or cases have increased by more than 50% over the last 10 days.

"The mask mandate is tied to the COVID Response Levels, and as COVID cases rise in Philly, we want to protect our most vulnerable residents. Wearing a mask around others is an easy way to do that. The sooner that we can stop this wave, the sooner we can get back to Level 1," the health department said.

At a press conference Monday, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said that coronavirus cases increased by more than 50% in a 10-day period last week, resulting in an average of 142 new cases per day.

"This looks like we may be at the start of a new COVID wave like Europe just saw," she said, according to WTXF-TV.

Bettigole was referring to the recent spike of coronavirus cases reported in Europe caused by the BA.2 Omicron subvariant, a more contagious but not deadlier strain of the coronavirus.

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha spoke about the new variant on Monday, telling NBC News he is "not overly concerned right now" about the possibility of another virus surge like the Delta or Omicron surges. During an interview on "Today," Jha said that case and hospitalization numbers nationwide are among the lowest they've been during the entire pandemic.

“I don’t think this is a moment where we have to be excessively concerned,” Jha said.

Philadelphia's decision to reinstate its indoor mask mandate contradicts guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states that areas with fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 people in the past 7 days have low levels of community spread.

At a "low" level of spread, the CDC recommends that state and local authorities prioritize vaccination and ensure access to testing, but does not suggest that masking be required by law.

Nevertheless, the city's health department is moving forward with the mask requirement.

"I sincerely wish we didn't have to do this again," Bettigole said. "I wish this pandemic was over just as much as any of you, but I am very worried about our vulnerable neighbors and loved ones. It is my hope that our actions today will slow the spread of COVID and help us avoid seeing our ERs once again get so crowded that people can't get timely care when they need it."

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