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Philly's the Latest City to Mandate Vaccines for Dining Indoors. Will More Follow?

(Since this article was published, Boston and Chicago have announced proof of vaccination mandates for indoor dining. Other cities are expected to follow.)

As coronavirus cases spike nationwide, and we prepare for a full-on Omicron surge, some cities are announcing new vaccine mandates. Philadelphia is the latest location to institute new vaccine rules for indoor dining. And other cities are expected to join.

We take a look at the details of Philadelphia’s vaccine mandate as an example of what to expect, as well as rules already in place elsewhere. Plus, we talk with experts for an idea of how many places may follow.

A look at what a vaccine mandate could entail

While vaccine mandates vary by location, Philadelphia’s new mandate provides a good window into what other cities might expect.

Gradual onset

Starting January 3, Philadelphia will require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for anyone five years and older who enters an establishment where food is served indoors. The new mandate goes into effect three weeks after its announcement on December 13, designed to give staff and patrons time to get vaccinated. 

For the first two weeks, businesses can accept either proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours of entry or proof of vaccination. After January 17, only proof of vaccination will be accepted.  Staff and guests must have one vaccine dose by the start date, and two within a month. One Johnson & Johnson vaccine is sufficient. “It’s impossible to say” whether boosters will be required in the future, says the Philadelphia Department of Health, but the policy could be updated moving forward.

Some exemptions

People with medical or religious exemptions can dine indoors without showing their vax card, but they must have a negative COVID-19 test from the previous 24 hours if the venue holds more than 1,000 people.

The vaccine mandate applies to anywhere that serves food indoors, including places like sporting venues, museum cafes, wedding venues, and entertainment venues like bowling alleys and movie theaters. It doesn’t apply to soup kitchens and other sites serving vulnerable populations, as well as several other select locations. It also doesn’t apply to outdoor dining, or to people who are headed inside for a short time, like to pick up food or use the bathroom. 

Businesses in charge of enforcement

It’ll be on each business to check people’s vaccination status. The city will enforce the mandate the same way as they do for the current mask mandate – as part of the normal inspection process. Noncompliance could result in fines of up to $2,000 per day, similar to cities like L.A., where fines range from $1,000 to $5,000.

“Given that many restaurants have already gone vaccine only, and seeing the experience in other cities, we hope that this isn’t a terribly hard transition,” says James Garrow, communications director for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “We’re in the process of developing materials to help with the process. We have already published guidance on how to verify someone’s immunization records and are working on guidance on how to talk to people about the mandate.” 

Vaccine mandates in other cities

Philly is simply a case study for what other cities might enact. Its policies are similar to cities like New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, and L.A., where indoor vaccine mandates are already in place. But they all vary by location.

In some cities, vaccine mandates extend beyond places that serve food. In New York City and L.A., for example, you must show proof of vaccination before heading inside to gyms, concert venues, and other entertainment venues, whether they serve food or not. A similar policy applies in New Orleans, where you can either show proof of vaccination, or instead a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours.

New York City was the first U.S. city to announce a vaccine mandate for indoor dining. Following the announcement, the city released its own vaccine status app, called NYC Covid Safe, designed to make it easier for people to carry around their vax cards by allowing them to store it on their phone. Similarly, New York state has the Excelsior Pass, letting people store their vaccination status or COVID-19 test results and retrieve it through the Excelsior app or web portal. The state is offering a blueprint of its app to assist other places in creating similar infrastructure.

While it’ll be up to operators to enforce the ever-changing rules, just how aggressively officials in each city crack down on restaurants remains to be seen.

Are vaccine mandates for indoor dining about to go viral?

Back in August, not long after Delta started surging in the U.S., we saw our first indoor dining vaccine mandate announcement from New York City, followed by San Francisco and New Orleans. Then came Omicron, and Los Angeles joined the list, with Philadelphia following shortly behind. 

As new Omicron research continues to emerge, how many other cities are likely to do the same? While it’s impossible to predict an exact number, with health officials anticipating that Omicron could cause record-high coronavirus cases, it’s likely we’ll soon see an increase in local vaccine mandates.

“I expect Omicron to spread like crazy,” says Dr. Aaron Glatt, professor and chair of medicine, chief of infectious diseases, and epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau. “It’s critically important to understand that Omicron has changed things around. It’s much more contagious than Delta, and as a result, it’s something that’s impacting even vaccinated people.”

Glatt warns that we should all be prepared for change. While vaccination remains our greatest tool for fighting the spread of COVID-19, officials may fight back with additional safety measures as case numbers continue to rise.

“I certainly think there’ll be an increase in mandates and changes in policy to further protect people that are at the greatest risk, and really to protect everybody,” says Glatt, noting that both the unvaccinated and vulnerable populations, like the elderly and immunocompromised, remain at highest risk. “Certainly people should get vaccinated, and these mandates can help get people vaccinated – that’s a benefit in itself.”

Dr. Peter Katona, a clinical professor of medicine in infectious diseases and adjunct professor of public health at UCLA, agrees that localized vaccine mandates are likely to become more widespread, noting that Omicron is the most contagious variant we’ve ever encountered.

“You’re going to hear a lot more about reinstituting some of the mandates that had previously been taken away when things were a little more under control in terms of the numbers,” says Katona. “I am also certain that, soon, in order to define people as ‘vaccinated’, they’ll have to have had a booster.”

Some cities, like Chicago, have already alluded that they’re at least contemplating vaccine mandates for indoor dining. And in Denver, where proof of vaccination is now required for unseated indoor events with 500-plus people, health officials are calling on the governor to extend the mandate to restaurants.

As we know, however, pandemic regulation isn’t a bipartisan issue in the U.S. And in states like Georgia, where the governor issued an executive order banning cities from requiring businesses to enforce local pandemic restrictions, new mandates won’t be an easy option. 

Katona says its key for local officials to examine and closely monitor regional data.

“New mandates will depend on the incidents of COVID in a given area, and particularly Omicron in that area, along with the incidents of hospitalizations, and current vaccination rates,” says Katona. “Every city should look at it individually and make their own thresholds.”

There are too many variables to make one-size-fits-all parameters, says Glatt. Cities will need to take into account factors like the number of hospitals in the area and their ability to expand, along with booster rates. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health says it pulled the trigger on a vaccine mandate because of rising cases and the fact that hospitals across the state were already “dangerously close to being overwhelmed”

“It’s important to note change. If cases and hospitalizations are rising, you’d likely want to get ahead of it and make these decisions before the increases become critical,” says Glatt.

As for how long we can expect to see new mandates appearing, and how long they’ll be in place, experts agree it all comes down to case numbers and what happens with Omicron.

“Unfortunately, COVID is not over, and people need to understand getting vaccinated remains the best way to protect yourself,” says Katona. “But indoors, without a mask, in close proximity to other people, remains a higher risk situation, and so there’s the potential that people will want to institute tighter control indoors.”

[Photo by furkanfdemir from Pexels]

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