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'The Honor System Clearly Hasn't Worked': Philly Imposes Mask-Or-Vaccine Mandate

If business owners are upset about the city of Philadelphia reintroducing restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, then they have company in Mayor Jim Kenney.

Philadelphia acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole demonstrates how to double-mask during a videoconference with reporters on Aug. 11, 2021.

The city will mandate either mask-wearing or proof of vaccination status for indoor businesses starting Thursday at midnight, Kenney and acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said at a virtual press conference on Wednesday. The new restriction, different from last year's due to the availability of the vaccine, comes in response to case numbers doubling three times in the past month.

"The honor system clearly hasn't worked," Bettigole said, referring to the recommendations from both city and federal health officials regarding getting vaccinated and wearing a mask indoors that were released in July.

Kenney was more forceful in his explanation for the restrictions, which also include a mask mandate for any outdoor gathering involving 1,000 or more people — exempting sporting events like Philadelphia Phillies or Eagles games.

“Thank God this is not World War II, or we'd be speaking German," Kenney said. "The level of maturity that was displayed then is not being displayed now.”

When asked to explain his seemingly prickly demeanor when tossing questions to Bettigole, Kenney clarified that he was not reacting to having to give a briefing, but what the briefing is about.

"I’m upset that people can’t act in the way they’re supposed to act and do what’s best for everybody," Kenney said. "We’re not as bad as other places, but it amazes me how [getting vaccinated] is a simple thing to do and people are not doing it, and are being encouraged not to do it by some elected officials.”

Because children under 12 still are not eligible for the vaccine, masks will be mandated in Philadelphia schools. If a business chooses to require proof of vaccination for entry rather than enforcing mask-wearing, then 12-year-olds would not be allowed in, Bettigole said. 

“If you’re letting unvaccinated people in, then that’s not a true vaccine mandate," Bettigole said. "For a restaurant that wants to have a vaccine mandate rather than a mask requirement, if they are letting unvaccinated people in, then people will be unprotected.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney speaks on a videoconference with reporters on Nov. 16, 2020.

For Philadelphians who have been vaccinated but no longer have physical vaccination cards, the city has set up a phone number and email address for requests to be sent new vaccination cards. Businesses will likely accept pictures of vaccination cards, but how they enforce either vaccine or mask mandates will be left up to them, Bettigole said.

When asked what sort of assistance would be given in requiring proof of vaccination or mask-wearing should they encounter resistance, Kenney said that business owners will essentially be on their own.

"That’s part of running a business in this pandemic: making sure people follow the rules,” Kenney said.

Kenney added that some restaurants had already begun requiring proof of vaccination before a citywide mandate was in place as evidence that the business community could handle the process, comparing the process to servers and bartenders requiring identification to serve alcohol.

Bettigole did not give a specific benchmark that would be required to either pull back or add more restrictions, but she noted that the current science does not support capacity limits or social distancing requirements as making a significant difference when compared with being vaccinated or masked.

"We know capacity limits and closures [would be] a huge economic hit to our city, and masks and vaccination mandates are not,” Bettigole said.

Though both Bettigole and Kenney expressed cautious optimism that a recent uptick in vaccinations in the city could send case numbers back down if it continues, Bettigole acknowledged how Philadelphians feel about the new restrictions and the conditions that precipitated them.

"This is not the summer any of us had imagined," she said.