Philadelphia becomes first major US city to reinstate indoor mask mandate

Patrons wear masks as they sit on the outdoor patio of a restaurant on Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. California is among more than 20 states that require face masks to help combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Philadelphia on Monday became the first major US city to reinstate its indoor mask mandate after reporting a sharp increase in coronavirus infections, with the city’s top health official saying she wanted to forestall a potential new wave driven by an Omicron sub-variant.

Confirmed Covid-19 cases had risen more than 50% in 10 days, the threshold at which the city’s guidelines called for people to wear masks indoors, said Dr Cheryl Bettigole, Philadelphia health commissioner.

Health officials believe the recent wave is being driven by the highly transmissible BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron, which has spread rapidly throughout Europe and Asia and has become dominant in the US in recent weeks.

“If we fail to act now, knowing that every previous wave of infections has been followed by a wave of hospitalizations, and then a wave of deaths, it will be too late for many of our residents,” said Bettigole, noting that about 750 Philadelphia residents had died in the winter Omicron outbreak.

“This is our chance to get ahead of the pandemic, to put our masks on until we have more information about the severity of this new variant.”

Health inspectors will begin enforcing the mask mandate at city businesses on 18 April.

Most states and cities dropped their masking requirements in February and early March following new guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that put less focus on case counts and more on hospital capacity.

The CDC said at that time that with the virus in retreat, most Americans could safely take off their masks.

Philadelphia ended its indoor mask mandate 2 March, and Bettigole acknowledged “it was wonderful to feel that sense of normalcy again”.

Confirmed cases have since risen to more than 140 a day – still a fraction of what Philadelphia saw at the height of the Omicron surge – while hospitalizations remain low at only 46 patients.

“I sincerely wish we didn’t have to do this again,“ Bettigole said. “But I am very worried about our vulnerable neighbors and loved ones.”

The restaurant industry pushed back against reimposed masking, saying workers would bear the brunt of customer anger over the new rules.

In New York City, the mayor, Eric Adams, has paused his push to unwind many of the city’s virus rules as cases have risen there, too, opting for now to keep a mask mandate for two to four-year-olds in city schools and preschools.

But Adams, a Democrat who has said New Yorkers should not let the pandemic run their lives, has already lifted most other mask mandates and rules requiring proof of vaccination to dine in restaurants, work out at gyms or attend shows.

New York City is now officially averaging about 1,800 new cases a day, about three times higher than in early March when New York began easing rules. That does not include the many home tests that go unreported to health officials.