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Philadelphia reinstated an indoor mask mandate today. Credit: Avi Singh

Philadelphia health officials reinstated the city's indoor mask mandate after rising cases, making it the first major city in the country to do so this spring.

The announcement was made during a press conference Monday afternoon by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. The mandate will take effect on April 18 to give businesses a one-week “educational period” to adjust to the policy change. Penn has not yet announced plans to reintroduce indoor masking. 

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said that she hopes employers will utilize the one-week buffer time to notify staff and patrons about the reintroduced mask mandate. 

“We hope that by having folks mask up whenever they’re in public indoor spaces, we can get ahead of the wave and keep it from reaching a peak like we saw in January with the Omicron variant,” Bettigole said. “If we can do that, we can literally save the lives of vulnerable Philadelphians.”

Philadelphia uses key metrics to determine the extent of COVID-19 precautions and to regulate the move from one response tier to another. Since March 2, Philadelphia had been operating under the “All Clear” precautions tier — the lowest of four — which ended the requirement for individuals to wear a mask indoors. With new data reported by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on April 11, the city moved immediately into the “Mask Precautions” tier.

“Mask Precautions” is enacted if at least two of the three following conditions are met: citywide new cases per day are above 100 but below 225, hospitalizations are above 50 but below 100, and cases have risen by more than 50% in the previous 10 days. 

A 60% increase in case counts over the past 10 days and a positive case average of 142 citywide each day were enough to trigger an immediate reinstatement of the indoor mask mandate. However, citywide hospitalizations are slightly below the threshold number at 44, down slightly from last week.

Philadelphia’s response tiers originally included percentage of positive COVID-19 tests as a fourth metric, but has since dropped it as a tool for measuring under which precaution level the city should be operating. Positivity rate has recently become unreliable in determining the spread of COVID-19, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer

Many Philadelphians taking COVID-19 tests at home will not report a negative test. At the same time, symptomatic individuals often take tests at hospitals and testing clinics, where numbers are automatically included in the city’s tally of cases. These two trends lead to higher positivity rates.

Bettigole said that at the current level of transmission, there should be no reason to panic or to avoid activities, and that by wearing masks, Philadelphians can go about their daily lives without contributing to the transmission of the virus.

Penn’s case count mirrors the increase found across Philadelphia County. A total of 273 community members tested positive for COVID-19 during the week from March 27 to April 4 — up 131 from the week before. Undergraduates comprised nearly 70% of new cases, with 187 total positive results.