Matt Slocum/The Associated Press
A woman wearing a face mask crosses Broad Street, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania is strengthening its mask mandate and will require out-of-state travelers to test negative for the coronavirus before arrival, health officials announced Tuesday, taking additional steps to address a sharp increase in infections and hospitalizations. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Philadelphia this week became the first major U.S. city to bring back its mask mandate in response to rising cases of the BA.2 coronavirus strain, which could test the limits of a pandemic-weary public.  

Beginning Monday, residents of the City of Brotherly Love will be required to wear masks while in public indoor spaces and businesses will be required to report on each other regarding noncompliance. 

“The mask mandate is tied to the COVID Response Levels, and as COVID cases rise in Philly, we want to protect our most vulnerable residents,” the city’s Department of Public Health said. 

The Biden administration on Wednesday extended the previously set-to-expire mask mandate on transportation networks until May 3, and colleges including Georgetown University and American University have brought back their own mandates, but no other major cities have so far done the same, even as their cases once again begin to rise. 

Data from the nonprofit COVID Act Now tracker shows the Philadelphia metropolitan area as having a case rate of 12 per 100,000, an infection rate of 1.21 and a positive test rate of 4.8 percent. All of these metrics are far from the highest in the U.S. 

Metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago and Houston all currently have higher case rates than Philadelphia’s but have so far refrained from reissuing mandates.

As the pandemic drags on into its third year, elected officials and health experts are wary of trying to reimpose restrictions that Americans are openly fed up with.

According to David Dowdy, epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the current COVID-19 numbers aren’t enough to warrant a change in policy. 

“Each city should be looking at their own numbers. But in general, I think that the numbers justify a strategy of, you know, maintaining the status quo and seeing where things go. Cases are going up, but severe cases aren’t going up so much that I think it merits dramatic action,” Dowdy said. 

He noted that the rates of hospitalizations and severe coronavirus cases have both remained low in comparison to cases overall.

The BA.2 variant currently accounts for about 86 percent of new cases in the U.S., according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says that, based on the BA.2 spike, it is extending the nationwide mask mandate for airplanes, trains and buses.

“In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC Order will remain in place at this time. At CDC’s recommendation, TSA will extend the security directive and emergency amendment for 15 days, through May 3, 2022,” an agency spokesperson said.

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha, when asked about Philadelphia’s decision, said on Thursday that local governments should be permitted to make their own decisions when it comes to the public health of their communities.

“At the end of the day, local leaders, mayors, governors have much more knowledge about what’s happening in their local community than anybody else,” Jha said on Fox News’s “Your World with Neil Cavuto.”

“And I’ve always been, for the last two years, very supportive of local leaders making decisions based on local conditions and I continue to think that’s the right way to go here,” added Jha.

Leana Wen, former commissioner of the Baltimore City Health Department and a professor at George Washington University, said issuing mask mandates at this time is likely premature.

Wen said such measures should be reserved as a last resort under two circumstances: when a variant causes a major surge of serious illnesses and when hospitals become overburdened due to the spread of the virus.

She argued that reacting this way to BA.2 could damage the credibility of health authorities if there is a strain that causes a major surge in the future, comparing it to the boy who cried wolf.

“If you keep saying there’s a crisis when there’s no crisis, how will you get people to listen?” Wen said. “People should be empowered to move on and resume pre-pandemic life.”

Mehmet Oz, who is running in the GOP primary for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat, decried the mask mandate after it was announced.

“This is covid theater! The left sloppily accepts authoritarian approaches. This is proof that it’s never been about ‘following the science,’ it’s always been about control,” Oz said in a statement.

Tags Ashish Jha BA.2 BA.2 sub variant Coronavirus coronavirus mask mandate coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 Leana Wen mask mandate Mehmet Oz Pennsylvania Philadelphia

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