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People in Philadelphia could be excused if they felt whiplash on Friday, when the city gave up its indoor mask mandate just days after becoming the first U.S. metropolis to lift mask requirements in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations had reintroduced.
City officials, who had previously stressed the need to stave off a new wave of coronavirus infections by requiring people to dress up indoors, abruptly called it off after saying it was an unexpected drop in the number of people in the hospital and a leveling off of new infections.
The city had taken a lot of heat for the renewed masking order since a lawsuit had already been filed and two of the top three Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania’s open US Senate seat opposed it at a Thursday night debate. But city officials Friday insisted their decision was about the data and not external legal or political pressure.
“When I announced this, I had said that if we don’t see an increase in hospital admissions, we need to reconsider and that we shouldn’t have a mandate. So that’s what we’re doing today,” said the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, at a virtual press conference on Friday.
Still, the city’s decision-making left some people scratching their heads.
Jesse Andreozzi runs a vegan restaurant that has spent hundreds of dollars on masks for guests and staff, expecting the mandate would last a few months. He said city officials are “flip-floppy” when it comes to masks.
“I just don’t understand the back and forth and why they implemented it, waited a week (to enforce it) and within another week said, ‘I’m just kidding,'” Andreozzi said. “I can understand if the numbers took a hard turn and were really bad, but the fact that they were decided and tied so quickly doesn’t make much sense.”
The quick about-face in Philadelphia came as travelers across the country removed masks in response to a federal judge’s decision that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its powers in mandating a mask on planes and trains, and at travel hubs had. The Biden administration is appealing.
In the absence of a federal mandate, the municipal transport companies were left to their own decisions – with a patchwork of regulations as a result.
The Philadelphia Transportation Department dropped its mask mandate after the court ruling, while Los Angeles County bucked national trends and said Thursday it will continue to require masks on public transportation, including trains, subways, buses, taxis and ridesharing services.
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Meanwhile, Boston urged people to return to wearing masks indoors amid a surge in cases, but stopped requiring them.
City officials said their decision to lift the mandate was based on the numbers, though daily fluctuations are common.
Hospital admissions peaked at 82 on Sunday and have since fallen to 65 on Thursday, according to the health ministry. Newly confirmed infections peaked at 377 on April 14 but have since leveled off. City health officials said that was enough to convince them a mask requirement was no longer necessary.
“It’s a very short amount of time because that’s the amount of time it took us to see what was going to happen next,” Bettigole said.
People apparently heeded the city’s April 11 announcement that masking would be required again in indoor public spaces, she said, helping to bring the numbers down.
“I think what we’ve seen is that people in Philadelphia are really paying attention to public health and doing what they had to do,” Bettigole said, noting that surrounding cities and states continue to see increases in case counts and Record hospital admissions.
Virus numbers are changing fast enough that mask guidance could be changed in a matter of days, Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
“We’ve been doing this for two years and in three days you get some pretty nice trends,” he said.
Benjamin said the pandemic leadership has become so politicized that any changing leadership is “tantamount to distrust, rather than tantamount to ‘these people are protecting me and they’re in charge every day.'”
He said changing mask rules shouldn’t be viewed as wishy-washy or arbitrary, but rather as a data-driven response to changing health conditions, much like air pollution days of action or swimming advice.
Along with lifting the mask mandate, Philadelphia is also getting rid of its tiered COVID-19 response system in place since February, which automatically triggered indoor masks and other restrictions in response to rising case numbers, hospitalizations and positivity rates.
Associated Press writer Tammy Webber of Fenton, Michigan contributed to this story.