The nation’s top health officials said Wednesday that the United States is getting closer to the point where COVID-19 is no longer a “constant crisis” as more cities, businesses and sporting venues began lifting pandemic restrictions across the country.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a White House briefing that the government is considering changing its mask guidelines in the coming weeks. Noting the recent drop in COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths, she acknowledged that “people are so impatient” for health officials to relax masking rules and other measures designed to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“We all share the same goal – to get to a point where COVID-19 is no longer disrupting our daily lives, a time when it won’t be a constant crisis – rather something we can prevent, protect against and treat,” says Walensky.
With the decline of the omicron variant and Americans eager to move beyond the virus, government and business leaders preempted the CDC to end virus measures last week, including ordering workers to return to offices, eliminating mask mandates, and no longer requiring proof of a vaccine to enter restaurants, bars, and sports and entertainment arenas.
The efforts grew every day.
Philadelphia officials said Wednesday that the city’s vaccination mandate for restaurants was immediately lifted, though indoor mask mandates remain in place for now. At Disney World, vaccinated guests will no longer have to wear masks at the Florida theme park starting Thursday. Professional sports teams, including the Utah Jazz and the Washington Wizards and Capitals, have stopped requiring proof of a vaccine for fans.
Washington’s most populous county – where Seattle is located – announced Wednesday that it will no longer require COVID vaccination checks to enter restaurants, bars, theaters and gymnasiums starting March 1.
Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said the average daily case count in Philadelphia has fallen to 189 cases per day in the city of more than 1.5 million people. Bettigole said the fall in infections has been steeper in Philadelphia than elsewhere in the state or country, which made it easier to lift the vaccination mandate for restaurants and other businesses announced in mid-December and which comes to come into full effect this month.
“Our goal has always been to be as unrestrictive as possible while ensuring safety,” she said.
In Provincetown, Massachusetts, a beach town that became a COVID hotspot with an early outbreak of the delta variant last summer, authorities on Tuesday lifted a mask mandate and vaccine requirement for indoor spaces like restaurants and the bars. City Manager Alex Morse said the community of around 3,000 had no active cases last week among Provincetown residents – something that hadn’t happened since the outbreak following the 4 July last year.
“We are learning to live with it and lessen the impact of the virus on our community,” Morse said.
COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have fallen sharply in the United States, with the seven-day rolling average of new daily cases falling from around 453,000 two weeks ago to around 136,000 on Tuesday, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University. Hospitalizations are at similar levels to September, when the United States was emerging from the delta variant surge. Nearly 65% of Americans are fully immunized.
“With all of this progress and the tools we have now, we are moving into a time where COVID is not a crisis but something we can protect against and treat,” said Jeff Zients, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus response.
Walensky said the CDC “will soon put in place relevant guidelines and encourage preventative measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals.” She suggested that any changes would take into account measures of community transmission, as well as hospitalization rates or other indicators of whether infected people are becoming seriously ill. They would also consider the bed space available in hospitals.
Several states with indoor mask mandates announced last week that they would be lifted in the coming weeks, also citing promising numbers.
Two music festivals that draw thousands to the California desert town of Indio in April and May, Coachella and Stagecoach, also said this week there would be no vaccination, masking or testing mandates in accordance with local guidelines. Coachella also noted that this could change with COVID conditions.
In Philadelphia, Bettigole said the vaccine mandate helped spur “a very large” increase in pediatric vaccinations, pushing the city well ahead of the national average for first doses in children ages 5 to 11. More than 53% of Philadelphia residents in that age group received a first dose, compared to nearly 30% nationally, she said.
Not all companies plan to change course immediately. Philadelphia’s Irish sports bar and restaurant O’Neals will continue to ask to see customers’ vaccination cards for now, managing partner Greg “Spoonie” Rand said, even if the city lifts its vaccination mandate.
“Customers are more compliant and employees are happier that we’re still making vaccine cards inside,” he said. He thinks vaccinated people will be reluctant to enter if the pub stops checking cards.
Walensky said the CDC wanted to “give people a break from things like mask-wearing” when circumstances improve, but be able to mask up again if things get worse. She also said there will be instances where people should continue to wear masks even as prevention measures ease. Examples include when people have symptoms of COVID-19 or are within 10 days of being diagnosed.
Associated Press reporters Mike Stobbe and Tali Arbel in New York, Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia, and Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed.