A mask slogan introduced by the city during COVID's first wave

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Originally published Aug. 29; updated Sept. 9

Looks like most Philadelphians are getting the message about wearing masks all of the time.

Face coverings were observed more than 95% of people exiting stores during the last week of August, according to Philadelphia Health Department observations from security cams outside retail shops. That’s up slightly from the 85% or so who’ve been doing it since the beginning of summer.

Even more encouraging is data about people’s habits when they’re just walking down the street.

Over the second half of August, more than 80% of people on Philly sidewalks were observed wearing masks. That’s nearly double the prior month; in July, an average of less than 45% were wearing them, per city data.

The increase tracks with an overall decrease in case counts and positivity rate. Aside from an uptick at the end of August attributed to an outbreak at Temple University, both metrics have been steadily trending down in Philadelphia

That doesn’t mean folks can go back to being lax about face coverings.

“Mask use is as important as ever,” cautioned Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley. “It’s a very simple step…if there’s one thing you can do to help yourself and others, it’s wearing a mask.”

Outdoor mask-wearing whenever social distancing isn’t possible became mandatory in Philadelphia in late June, ordered by Mayor Jim Kenney to help contain coronavirus spread as the economy slowly began reopening. A month later, residents appeared to be wearing masks more often than many other U.S. cities, according to a Dynata poll that used self-reported info, not actual observation.

What’s happening in other cities these days? Unclear, as few appear to actually publish or track mask-wearing data the way Philadelphia does.

Nationwide polls also haven’t really tackled the question of wearing masks on the street. A Pew survey from early August found 85% of Americans said they now wear masks whenever inside stores and businesses, up from 65% in June.

‘Mask Up PHL’ campaign more popular than anticipated

Philly’s recent doubling in on-the-street compliance, measured by counting people in footage from police cameras around the city, follows a month of the city’s “Mask Up PHL” media blitz to encourage the preventative measure.

Launched mid-July with a total budget of $750k, the effort included online PSAs as well as posters and SEPTA bus wraps. It was managed by Delaware-based firm Aloysius Butler & Clark, which credits some of the success of its first-ever mask campaign to partnerships with local organizations.

“To ensure we had the reach and impact needed, we partnered with three other agencies,” AB&C president Paul Pomeroy told Billy Penn, naming Community Marketing Concepts, Brownstone PR and TML Communications.

The #MaskUpPHL campaign runs in multiple languages Credit: City of Philadelphia

The messaging developed by the group — “Philly never backs down, mask up” and “Love your neighbor, wear a mask” — was more popular than anyone expected, which is why you can now order a face covering emblazoned with either slogan.

Printed by South Philly’s Minuteman Press and available in white or black, the Mask Up PHL coverings are made of two-ply, machine-washable polyester. A portion of proceeds are slated to be donated to the Black Doctors Covid-19 Consortium.

If you do order one, know that while they look cool, they might not offer the very best protection.

There have not really been any definitive studies that can say what material is tops in stopping coronavirus spread, but there are reports that cloth masks layering different materials are most effective, with cotton being a key player.

Other conventional wisdom, mentioned by Dr. Farley on Aug. 13, says to use a “light test” to measure how effective they are at catching droplets released while you breathe. (Respiratory droplets are widely considered the main method of COVID-19 transmission.) If you can see your fingers through the mask when you hold it up to the light, that’s a sign the mesh isn’t very tight.

This does happen with the Minuteman masks to some extent. Asked about it, Philly’s health commissioner said he’s still confident they’re useful — but if people are worried, they can wear something else.

“We do not expect that these masks printed with the campaign slogan will be widely used,” Farley said. “Effective masks are readily available and inexpensive, and most people will obtain their own… Our larger goal is that everyone wear masks.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation, including the membership program. She is a former food and...