Philadelphia is not getting any brotherly love from its Delaware Valley neighbors over its decision to bring back its COVID-19 indoor mask mandate.
“Bucks County has not, at any point during the pandemic, implemented a community mask mandate and has no plans going forward to do so,” James O’Malley, Bucks County Deputy Director of Communications told Delaware Valley Journal.
The Philadelphia Health Department announced Monday it will require masks indoors at offices, shops, restaurants, and some outdoor public spaces beginning April 18. The decision comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, while still low, have crept past the Philadelphia City Council’s benchmark system established earlier this year.
The collar counties surrounding the city will not be joining in.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Chester County government’s position has been that the decision to wear a mask is personal,” said Public Information Officer Rebecca Brain. “Likewise, the decision of a business or organization to require a mask of their customers or employees is personal, and not something that should be regulated by the county.”
Their language echoes Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Disease, who said Sunday, “We’re going to see that each individual is going to have to make their calculation of the amount of risk that they want to take in going to indoor dinners and in going to functions.”
O’Malley acknowledged the Bucks County Health Department tracks local data and consults with nearby hospitals to create mitigation recommendations but expects caseloads to rise and fall over time without the need for a mask mandate.
“I think at this point, with hospitalizations still very low and a high number of people having been vaccinated, we need to pivot away from mandates,” said Rep. Tracy Pennycuick, (R-Harleysville). “We have had two years of education on this disease and people need to make their own risk assessment and decide for themselves if they are going to get vaccinated and/or wear a mask. We also need to recognize that basic cloth masks that most individuals have are not nearly as protective as higher grade N95 masks anyway, so the effectiveness of a mask mandate would be limited at best.”
Across the river in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) concurred. “I’d be shocked if we put a mandate like that in place in New Jersey,” he said Monday.
And the opposition isn’t just in the suburbs. Philadelphia Councilmember Allan Domb (D-At-Large) told DVJournal he thinks the city is making a mistake.
“I’m listening to the CDC,” Domb said. “I’m listening to Dr. Fauci, who said masking is a decision that should be left up to the individual. I’m listening to Children’s Hospital.”
PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said Friday, “Our team advises against required masking.”
Domb fears the mask mandate will be a blow to the city’s economy just as recovery is beginning.
“It could really set back our local economy. Philadelphia is just one city. It’s one thing if the entire country does it, but they aren’t. The suburbs aren’t doing it, either. This just hurts our small businesses.”
Domb also noted that while Philadelphia’s case rate is higher than the nearby suburbs, it’s far lower than New York City and Washington, D.C., and even lower than Baltimore.
The 7-day average caseload per 100,000, according to New York Times data, in Philadelphia (170) is significantly above that of surrounding counties, including Montgomery (84), Delaware (50), Chester (54), and Bucks (45). That metric, among others, leaves some counties hedging their bets.
Critics of reinstating mask mandates, however, point to hospitalization rates. While Philadelphia has seen a spike in the daily average of positive tests over the past two weeks, up 74 percent, the hospitalization number is down over that same period by 21 percent.
Delaware and Montgomery County officials note their communities are not currently at risk using CDC metrics, but they won’t rule out the need for future mask mandates.
“The Delaware County Health Department (DCHD) is monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic data to identify trends that may require public health community measures such as indoor masking,” the county said in a statement. “Currently, per the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Delaware County’s community-level remains low. Therefore, an indoor mask requirement in Delaware County is not yet necessary.”
Montgomery County Public Health Administrator Christina Miller also noted the county’s “low” status, while still suggesting some people may choose to mask for the next few weeks.
“In light of the slight uptick in cases we are seeing across the Northeast, and the uptick in cases that we saw at this time last year following spring break, individuals––particularly those at higher risk for severe COVID––might consider masking up this week and the next few weeks to protect themselves and their community,” Miller said.
Domb also supports a mask recommendation, not a requirement.
“They’re talking about removing the mask mandate for airline travel the same day Philadelphia goes back to masking,” Domb observed. “I wish they would reconsider.”