This week, a group of Philadelphia business owners and residents filed a lawsuit against the city for reinstating a mask mandate. The plaintiffs fear the repercussions of a mask mandate for businesses and feel that the mandate is invalid considering the current advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the city’s lack of authority on the decision. The plaintiffs’ complaints are valid; mask mandates can hurt local business and the city is going against the decision of the state. The city’s response, however, is valid as well. When the suit was filed, Philadelphia’s case count had increased by more than 50% in the previous 10 days. Earlier this year when the omicron variant became the dominant strain in the U.S., an increase in death rates followed a few weeks later, with tolls surpassing those of the more deadly delta variant. Though we do not know how deadly the new omicron subvariant will be, the increased transmissibility of omicron variants means it still poses a significant threat to public health. In order to look after those that are immunocompromised and also respect the livelihoods of the people of Philadelphia, a compromise must be made between these two arguments.
The city instated the mandate through an emergency order despite the fact thatneither the state of Pennsylvania nor the CDC is currently requiring a mask mandate. The plaintiffs believe it should not be up to the city to make that decision. Although the General Assembly does have the authority in this matter, Philadelphia is making its decision based on the unique circumstances of the recent rise within the city. The city itself has seen a more significant rise in cases than the rest of the state, so it is fair for Philadelphia to respond on its own based on its own standards in order to protect its residents.
Mask mandates are proven to be effective, but they also have damaging effects on small businesses. Measuring the effectiveness of mask mandates is not a simple task, but the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia conducted a causal inference study investigating how countries with mask mandates have fared over the pandemic. The results suggest that mask mandates help prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially in highly populated areas. While some business owners embrace mask mandates because of the protection they offer, others have reservations and fears. For some time in New York, only businesses within the city had to enforce a mask mandate, and there were reports of customers leaving to shop just outside of the city and confrontations with business owners. The business owners in the plaintiff group want to avoid a similar situation even though they recognize the benefits of mask-wearing.
Philadelphia has seen a drastic increase in COVID-19 cases recently. The death and hospitalization rates, however, have not yet had the same level of growth. While this may help the case of the plaintiffs, the people of the city and people everywhere should not feel relieved yet. The numbers of cases and deaths from when the omicron variant became the dominant COVID-19 variant in the U.S. show a trend that we should be wary of. When the cases of omicron rose, the rise in death rates followed, although it was delayed by about two weeks. This is likely due to the fact that the virus takes about two weeks to have serious effects on a person. The new rise in cases may lead to a rise in deaths in the coming week.
Philadelphia, finding itself stuck between a lawsuit and the health of its citizens, modified the mandate to “strongly recommend” masks on April 22. However, given the fact that this will be an increasingly common situation, there should be a more structured way to compromise. I believe in order to compromise and still ensure the safety of the people of Philadelphia, the city should have instituted a 10-day pilot mask mandate. The 10 days would likely only minorly impact businesses and at the end of it, we would know more about the severity of the effects of the subvariant. If it proves to be deadly in the rest of the country, Philadelphia could keep the mandate going, and if not, they could remove it. The motivation for instating a mandate is now based on the number of cases, but if the virus seems to just have minor effects, businesses should not have to suffer the effects of the mask mandate. I also believe this middle ground would offer the most even-keeled precedent if similar conflicts arise in the future. If the plaintiffs won the case completely, it would be challenging for cities to protect their citizens in the future, and if the city won, it would be challenging for businesses and citizens to stand up to their government.