PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia lifted its indoor mask mandate, but residents and visitors are strongly encouraged to still wear a mask in indoor public spaces, the city’s health department said Friday.
Just days after becoming the first major city to reimpose a mask mandate, Philly flipped the switch again with a unanimous vote from the Philadelphia Board of Health.READ MORE: Philadelphia's Gun Violence Epidemic Continues To Have Devastating Impact On City's Youth
“We feel like a mandate isn’t necessary at this point,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said.
It’s an abrupt about-face from the Philadelphia health commissioner just four days after a mask mandate was imposed on the city.
“This is not a free-for-all, take off your masks. This is a ‘we’re going to strongly recommend this rather than require it,'” Bettigole said.
Health officials say the decision to rescind the order is due to decreasing hospitalizations and a leveling of case counts, not criticism from businesses and residents.
From the end of March to mid-April, the health department said cases rose steeply. Philadelphia was averaging 50 to 60 cases per day during that period, rising to a peak of 377 cases on April 14.
Hospitalizations have also decreased. On April 17, they peaked at 82 and are now at 65 as of April 21.
“It is something different than what we’ve seen in previous waves,” Bettigole said of the decline.
Health officials say based on the data that hospitalizations have not continued to rise, the city will no longer use the COVID-19 response levels that were introduced earlier this year.
“What I’m trying to do is really follow the data and I think that’s what we’ve done here,” Bettigole said. “You know, I’ve said and I said when we announced the mask mandate that if we didn’t see hospitalizations rise in tandem with a rise in cases that we would need to change and rethink our metrics. And that’s what we’re doing here.”
Businesses and other institutions are allowed to be more strict than the city’s COVID-19 policies, so some might require proof of vaccination or require masks. Schools also might set up their own mask policies.
Masks will still be required in health care settings, nursing homes and shelters, according to a release.
“So I think people are paying attention not just to masks but to COVID in a way that maybe they had stopped paying attention a few weeks earlier, and that’s what we need to have happen,” Bettigole said.
Earlier this week, the news made national headlines when the mandate took effect.
The order was met with backlash among some business owners.
Last weekend, attorneys representing a handful of businesses filed suit against the city, a move to toss out the mandate arguing it has no scientific basis.
“Philadelphia actually did away with the CDC guidelines as the standard and they’ve invented their own guidelines,” Attorney Thomas W. King III told Eyewitness News on Saturday. “They’re making this stuff up. I want to see the state commonwealth court strike down this mandate as a violation of Pennsylvania law.”
The mandate conflicted with recommendations from the CDC and health policy experts at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. They say hospital capacities are in good shape.
The health department said it had to be more aggressive to protect the large population of vulnerable people.
“I would disagree that it’s been confusing,” Bettigole said.
Bettigole dismissed concerns that fluctuating mandates have hurt the health department’s credibility.
“I actually think the opposite. You know, I very much take seriously my obligations to say things that are true to Philadelphia and to keep my promises. And I had said when I announced this, that if we didn’t see hospitalizations rising, that we needed to rethink this and that we shouldn’t have a mandate,” Bettigole said.
Bettigole said the health department would not establish a new COVID response system. Potential future mandates will be determined by following trends, not a specific set of numbers.
During the mandate, gyms, sporting event venues, hair salons, and small businesses were affected. The restaurant industry says it even saw cancellations immediately.
“It was a real gut punch. We were the only city in the entire country to impose a mask mandate,” said Ben Fileccia, senior director of operations for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.
In the midst of frustration and confusion, Fileccia says it was difficult enforcing the changing mandates.
“These restaurant employees, these hotel employees, we’re the ones enforcing these mandates for the past two years. They didn’t sign up for this job,” Fileccia said.
Restaurant and local businesses are remaining cautiously optimistic.
“It’s great that the weather is back, we’re gonna have all this outdoor dining and we are going to welcome guests no matter what your mask preference is back into the city,” Fileccia said.
After days of confusion and criticism over bringing back the mask mandate, most people Eyewitness News spoke to are happy to hear Philadelphia will be on the same page as other cities.
“I think that Mayor Kenney was expecting other cities to follow Philadelphia in terms of reimplementing this policy,” Jay Larry said. “And I don’t think that the rest of cities in this area and the country are ready to do so.”
“It’s up and down,” Brad Howell said, “You don’t ever know where you’re going to go. It says yes here, it says no here, we really don’t know at this point.”MORE NEWS: Recent Coastal Storm Uncovers Historic 'Ghost Tracks' On Higbee Beach In Cape May, And It's Not 1st Time
CBS3’s Ross DiMattei, Stephanie Stahl, and Kerri Corrado contributed to this report.