The Del National Guard is helping test people at the state's beaches

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Even though Delaware is technically over its chosen threshold, Philadelphia has walked back guidance that all Delawareans traveling into the city need to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Officials issued the initial recommendation Tuesday, adding Del. to the city’s list of states with travel restrictions after the coronavirus case count began to surge there — but quickly realized it wasn’t practical.

About 60,000 Delaware residents work in Philadelphia, according to a Philly analysis. The number of commuters may be lower right now because of the pandemic, but there are still a lot of people going back and forth on a regular basis.

So instead, the city is asking all commuters from Del. to take extreme precautions.

“[I]f they have to work … then they should be using a mask at all times when they’re at work,” Philly Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley said Thursday, adding that interstate workers should stop working and get tested as soon as they experience COVID-19 symptoms.

What criteria do Philly health officials use when determining which incoming travelers should isolate and which can roam free?

“We went with measures that we can easily count and measure,” Farley said.

Specifically, the city flags states with an infection rate of 90 residents per 100k on a weekly basis, Health Department spokesperson James Garrow told Billy Penn, a figure chosen because “it seemed like a reasonable level.”

Delaware currently has a COVID-19 infection rate of about 106 residents per 100k. That’s more than twice Philly’s current rate of just under 50 per 100k, according to an Inquirer analysis, and much higher than Pa.’s statewide rate of 38 or New Jersey’s 27.5 per 100k.

Del. Gov. John Carney has said his state’s spike in COVID-19 rates can be attributed to more robust testing in beach towns.

As parts of the nation experience a new surge, Philadelphia officials have maintained travel restrictions and requested mandatory quarantine after travel to certain states. An interactive map on the city’s COVID-19 information page is updated every seven days, and highlights do-not-travel states in bright red.

Lack of U.S. guidance means metrics and enforcement differ greatly

While the 90 per 100k rate is the threshold officials landed on, Garrow said any state with a higher infection rate than Pennsylvania represents a risk.

With no specific guidance about travel restriction criteria from the federal government, state and local health departments are left to create those metrics themselves. They differ from state to state — and even within states themselves.

Philadelphia’s list of COVID-19 hotspots is more extensive, and its criteria different, than Pennsylvania’s. Iowa and Oklahoma are do-not-travel states for Philly but not Pa., for example.

Pa. Health Department officials measure states’ infection rates along with the percent of positive tests to negative to determine travel restrictions, according to department spokesperson Maggi Mumma.

Other places handle things differently. Kansas’ Health Department looks at widespread community transmission and adds states to its mandatory quarantine list if case rates per 100,000 are three times higher than its own infection rate, according to its website.

Lack of national guidance means states and municipalities may handle pandemic protocol enforcement differently, too. The CDC says states and municipalities can legally rely on the criminal justice system to enforce pandemic-time health safety measures like a mandatory quarantine.

In Hawaii, for example, authorities have actually arrested tourists and residents caught violating the state’s self-quarantine requirement.

Other jurisdictions, including Philadelphia, are not enamored of the idea to involve law enforcement — especially given the current movement highlighting police brutality. At the beginning of the local pandemic surge, Philly did institute a fine for people found violating mandatory stay-at-home order, but didn’t issue much more than verbal warnings.

In the current modified “green” reopening phase, Philly police are not involved in enforcing the city’s requested travel quarantine or its mandatory mask requirements.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...