PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Philadelphia has lifted its indoor mask mandate, city health officials said Friday, abruptly reversing course just days after people in the city had to start wearing masks again amid a sharp increase in infections.
In an announcement, the Department of Public Health said residents and visitors are strongly encouraged, but not required, to wear a mask in indoor public spaces.
The Board of Health voted Thursday to rescind the mandate, according to the health department, which released a statement that cited "decreasing hospitalizations and a leveling of case counts."
On Friday, Mayor Jim Kenney acknowledged that the federal judge's ruling that lifted mask mandate on public transportation, and SEPTA deciding to make masks optional made it hard to enforce mask wearing across the city
"The infection rate is going down, hospitalizations are going down, and frankly the ruling in Florida confused a lot of stuff. SEPTA is doing what they did and confused a lot of stuff," said Kenney.
The mandate went into effect Monday. Philadelphia had ended its earlier indoor mask mandate March 2.
Masks will continue to be required in healthcare settings and congregate settings such as nursing homes and shelters.
"We have said throughout the pandemic that we will respond based on the data available. In implementing our mask mandate, we had promised to continue to monitor hospitalizations and to review the need for the mandate if hospitalizations did not rise following the rise in cases," Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, Philadelphia's Health Commissioner, said in a statement Friday morning.
She added, "We are grateful to see that Philadelphians once again stepped up, responding to this pandemic with solidarity and care for each other. And that response and the data demonstrating its effectiveness makes it possible for us to announce today that we are rolling back Philadelphia's mask mandate in favor of a strong recommendation for indoor masking."
Bettigole told the Board of Health at a public meeting Thursday night that hospitalizations had unexpectedly gone down 25% in a matter of days.
"We're in a situation that we really had not anticipated being in this soon but it is good news," she said, according to a transcript of the meeting. "So I'm really very happy...to say it appears that we no longer need to mandate masks in Philadelphia and that we can actually move to simply a strong recommendation."
The city said after rising steeply between the end of March, when cases were staying at 50-60 per day, and mid-April, rising to a peak of 377 cases on April 14, cases have leveled off and were averaging 242 per day as of April 21.
Hospitalizations in Philadelphia peaked on April 17 at 82 and have fallen over the course of the week, reaching 65 on April 21, according to the city.
"Of note, this leveling off of cases and the decrease in hospitalizations has occurred while numbers continue to increase in the surrounding states and counties, a testament to the seriousness with which Philadelphia approached this wave of infection," the health department said.
Based on the data showing that hospitalizations have not continued to rise, officials said the City of Philadelphia will no longer use the COVID-19 Response levels introduced earlier this year.
"Response levels worked as intended and helped act as an early warning system to level off this current rise in cases," Bettigole said. "People responded by being careful even prior to the mandate, and so we believe that a strong recommendation is adequate rather than a mandate at this stage of the pandemic."
Philadelphia had become the first major U.S. city to reinstate its indoor mask mandate, but faced fierce blowback as well as a legal effort to get the mandate thrown out.
The restaurant industry had pushed back against the city's reimposed mask mandate, saying workers would bear the brunt of customer anger over the new rules.
Several businesses and residents filed suit in state court in Pennsylvania seeking to overturn the renewed mandate. The Board of Health's vote to rescind the mandate came after board members met in private to discuss the lawsuit.
"We were very pleased to see Philadelphia make the correct decision to rescind the mask mandate," said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Thomas W King III, who was among those involved in last year's successful legal challenge to the statewide mask mandate in schools.
Shortly before news broke that the mandate was ending, the issue came up during Thursday night's debate between the three leading Democratic candidates seeking the party's nomination for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat. Notably, two of them, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia, came out against the mandate.
"We have to move past COVID," said Fetterman, adding that "we have to live with this virus, and I don't believe going backwards with a mask mandate or with closures is appropriate."
U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of suburban Pittsburgh said he hated wearing masks, but thought Philadelphia officials were "trying to do what's best for everybody."
Most states and cities dropped their masking requirements in February and early March following new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that put less focus on case counts and more on hospital capacity and said most Americans could safely take off their masks.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, said it is appealing a judge's order that voided the federal mask mandate on planes and trains and in travel hubs. The CDC asked the Justice Department to appeal the decision handed down by a federal judge in Florida earlier this week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.