Philly’s coronavirus response

How Philly’s indoor dining COVID vaccine mandate will work

The policy goes into effect Jan. 3, with a short grace period.

The bar and dining room at Vernick Fish

The bar and dining room at Vernick Fish

CHRISTIAN HORAN PHOTOGRAPHY

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Any Philadelphia spot that offers food and drink indoors must require customers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the new year.

That includes restaurants, cafes, movie theaters, catering halls, sports venues, and most other places that serve inside. It does not include schools, hospitals, or the airport. (More details below.)

The city’s new vaccine mandate, which begins Jan. 3, echoes existing rules in San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York. Unlike some other cities, however, Philly’s rule applies only to food and drink establishments.

That’s because in other public indoor places, from supermarkets to gyms to salons, you can keep your mask on. When you’re eating or drinking, you can’t — and masking has been found to be one of the most effective ways to stop the spread.

The mandate was announced Monday by Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Bettigole, who cited the more transmissible omicron variant, and said the new policy is a precaution against a massive winter wave of infections, like the one that battered Philadelphia and the nation last year.

“Pennsylvania has one of the fastest rising case counts in the nation, and our own case rates have doubled in the past couple of weeks,” Bettigole said.

Cases in the commonwealth have jumped 23% over the past week, according to Pa. Department of Health data, and the state positivity rate is 14%, way above the 5% threshold considered acceptable these days.

City cases are up 26% week over week, with positivity hovering around 6%. Hospitalizations are also up 30%, Bettigole noted, so it’s not only mild cases.

Bettigole stressed that the new rule is intended to help restaurants, not hurt them. “I don’t want to close our restaurants or other businesses that serve food.” she said. “They’ve been through too much, and are an important part of the city’s lifeblood.”

Over three-quarters of Philly’s adult population are already fully vaccinated against COVID, as are more than 70% of residents over 12 years old, according to city health department data.

Vaccination rate is higher than 50% for almost all racial and ethnic groups tracked by the city, but it drops below that threshold for teens and younger adults, with large portions of Philly’s under-44 population not yet fully vaxxed.

Encouraging more people to get their shots is one of the reasons for the mandate. “If people would all get vaccinated, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion,” Kenney said.

How will it work? Here’s a rundown of what you need to know.

How does the mandate define ‘fully vaccinated’?

This policy defines a fully vaccinated person as someone who’s had one dose of Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine or two doses of Pfizer or Moderna.

It does not address booster shots, which are highly recommended for people 16 and older two months after they got a J&J shot or six months after their most recent Pfizer or Moderna shot.

When does it go into effect?

The mandate officially begins Monday, Jan. 3, but there’s a two-week grace period.

Through Jan. 17, dining establishments can instead allow someone entry if they show a negative COVID test within the past 24 hours. After that, proof of full vax is required.

What about staff?

Staff at places that fall under the mandate have a little bit of leeway: they’ll need to have at least one dose of COVID vaccine by Jan. 3, and have until Feb. 3 to get fully vaccinated.

What is covered under the mandate?

  • Restaurants with indoor dining rooms
  • Bars that serve indoors
  • Coffee shops with indoor seats or tables
  • Cafes or restaurants within larger spaces, like museums or hotels. The entire establishment doesn’t need to enforce the mandate, but they will need to have a vax check before people enter a food or drink sit-down spot.
  • Food courts inside malls or other venues. Like the above, seating areas should be cordoned off and have someone checking vaccine status on entry.
  • Sports venues that serve food or drink for indoor consumption — this does include the Wells Fargo Center, since people eat and drink all through the arena. It does not include Lincoln Financial Field, which is outdoors.
  • Movie theaters, bowling alleys, and other entertainment venues that serve food or drink for onsite consumption
  • Conventions (if food is being served)
  • Catering halls
  • Casinos where food and drink is allowed on the floor

What places are exempted from the mandate?

  • K-12 schools
  • Daycares
  • Hospitals
  • Congregate care facilities and nursing homes
  • Soup kitchens and other special population providers that serve food
  • Residential or health care facilities
  • Grocery stores, Convenience stores, or other places that primarily sell food and drink for offsite use
  • Philadelphia International Airport — except in traditional seated restaurant or seated bar areas, which will be required to check vax status

Who is exempted from the mandate?

No COVID vaccines are approved for children under 5 years 3 months, so the mandate doesn’t apply to them — i.e. they should be allowed to enter establishments covered under the new rule.

People who have proof of a valid religious or medical reason they cannot get a COVID vaccine are also exempted.Does this mean I won’t have to wear a mask at the movies anymore?

Philly already has an existing “vax or mask” mandate for all public indoor establishments. This has meant people need to mask up when entering movie theaters, bowling alleys, and anywhere else that didn’t choose to require vaccination. (About a third of city restaurants already require vaccination to dine indoors.)

When the new rule goes into effect, and those places are forced to require vax proof, does that mean you won’t have to wear a mask at the movies anymore? Not exactly — because young kids are exempted.

Any place that allows unvaccinated children under 5 to enter will still need to require patrons to wear masks whenever they’re not eating or drinking, Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow clarified.

How will this be enforced?

The Philadelphia Department of Health is responsible for enforcement of the mandate. It’ll be checked during regular inspections, and the city is planning to send out people to educate businesses on how to comply.

If you see a violation, call 311. When something is reported, the city will send out an inspector. After multiple violations, a business could be subject to a $2,000 per day fine.

Is this a test for a larger mandate in the future?

Some other cities, like New York, require vaccination to enter any indoor establishment, including gyms and grocery stores. That’s not the plan for Philly, Commissioner Bettigole clarified.

“We tried to stay with the least restrictive regulations necessary,” she said. “This is restricted to places that offer food or drink for indoor consumption because people take off their masks in those cases.”

How long will this stay in effect?

There’s no specific end date set for the indoor dining vaccine mandate.

Kenney and Bettigole said they want to roll it back as soon as possible, and the decision will be made based on COVID case rates and hospitalization rates.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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