Philly’s COVID recovery

Philadelphia updates COVID response level system as fewer people get tested

The city is no longer using percent positivity to measure the state of the pandemic.

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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Two years after Philadelphia first enacted pandemic safety measures, the city is in what health officials have dubbed “All Clear” mode.

That’s according to the system laid out by the Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole on Feb. 16, and it means there are no vaccine or testing requirements for dining establishments, and no masking requirements outside of a few settings mandated by the federal government: health care institutions, nursing homes and congregate care facilities, and public transit.

A month later, numbers continue to fall. There are fewer than 100 people hospitalized by COVID in Philly, and just over 50 new cases discovered daily. (See details in the charts here.)

But with many fewer people getting tested each day — under 5k people, versus more than 10k when omicron was surging, for example — the Health Department changed its criteria for determining what level of restrictions should be active. The system will no longer include percent positivity.

Instead, health officials will track three data points to move through four levels of restrictions: 1) average daily COVID cases recorded by the city; 2) COVID hospitalizations in the city; and 3) the rate of case increase.

The levels are intended to provide transparency for what city residents and business owners can expect going forward, Bettigole said, and were developed based on consultations with experts and analysis of metrics over the past two years. They are:

Level 4: Extreme Caution

Mandated indoor masking and proof of vaccination for businesses serving food indoors. At this level, two or more of the following are true:

  • Average new daily cases 500+
  • Hospitalizations 500+
  • Positivity 10%+
  • Cases have risen 50%+ in the previous 10 days

Level 3: Caution

Indoor masking and checks at businesses serving food are still in effect, but a negative test result no more than 24 hours old can be used instead of a vaccination card. At this point, three or more of the following are true:

  • Average new daily cases < 500.
  • Hospitalizations < 500
  • Positivity < 10%
  • Cases have risen < 50% in the previous 10 days

Level 2: Mask Precautions Only

No vaccine mandate for businesses, indoor masking still required. At this level, three or more of the following must be true:

  • Average new daily cases < 225
  • Hospitalizations < 100
  • Positivity < 5%
  • Cases have risen < 50% in the previous 10 days

Level 1: All Clear

An end to all mandates, including the indoor mask mandate. For all mandates to be lifted, three or more of the following have to true:

  • Average new daily cases < 100
  • Hospitalizations < 50
  • Positivity < 2%
  • Cases have risen < 50% in the previous 10 days

Here’s a rundown of how Philly’s new COVID response levels will work.

Where do these rules apply?

The new system applies to any business that serves food and drink, along with indoor public places, which include:

  • Hotels
  • Banquet halls
  • Convention centers
  • Gyms
  • Movie theaters
  • Casinos
  • Barber shops

What about schools and colleges?

Philadelphia schools made masking optional as of March 9. The Health Department will continue its regular, ongoing discussions with the School District of Philadelphia about potential adjustments, Bettigole said. College and universities will set the standards for their own facilities, and they could be more restrictive than the city.

How about public transit and hospitals?

No matter what level of restrictions Philly officials set, federal guidelines still apply. Right now, federal rules say masking is still required on public transit like SEPTA and PATCO, as well as in health care settings like hospitals and clinics.

Where do I find out what level is active?

The Health Department’s website displays the current status on a banner at the top of the policy landing page. Officials will update the website weekly, usually on Monday afternoon, unless there’s some unexpected or sudden change, Bettigole said.

I’m unvaccinated, what’s changed for me?

You can frequent businesses that were previously off limits due to vaccine mandates. However, businesses have the right to enact a policy more stringent than the city’s COVID response plan, so they could have their own vaccine requirements.

What about employer vaccine mandates?

No aspects of private employer vaccine requirements have changed, whether it’s a strict mandate or a “vax or test” policy. The city’s requirement for municipal employees to get vaccinated is also still active.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s COVID recovery stories.

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