April 12, 2022 - 4:15pm

Yesterday, Philadelphia announced it would be reinstating its indoor mask mandate amid a moderate rise in coronavirus cases, making it the first American city to do so in response to the spread of the Omicron subvariant BA.2. In making this decision, Philadelphia went beyond the recommendations of the CDC — which still considers the city to have a “low” level of community spread, meaning that masking should be an individual decision — and relied instead on its own Covid response plan, which calls for heightened mitigation measures whenever new cases rise by more than 50% over a 10-day period. 

While much remains unknown about BA.2, the city’s return to mask mandates, which echoes recent decisions by elite universities such as Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, raises uncomfortable questions about the future of Covid policy in America’s liberal cities.

Masking is, above all else, a symbolic policy. Although it is generally favoured by U.S. public health authorities and supported by some studies, the evidence for its effectiveness in curbing the spread of the virus is sketchy, especially now, when the vast majority of Americans have some combination of vaccine-induced and natural immunity to the virus. Indeed, last week, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the source of the above-linked study in support of mask mandates, recommended against the city reimposing a mandate, given the currently low level of strain on the hospital system. 

To the extent that Covid remains a problem in cities like Philadelphia, it is due to relatively low booster uptake among the elderly — only about half of Philadalphians over 65 have received a third shot. But of course, booster campaigns do not publicly signal concern about the virus in the same way as mandates, and they are far more difficult for governments to implement. If the city can’t force its elderly residents to get boosted, it can at least force everyone to wear ineffective cloth masks while shopping for groceries — just to show that it is doing something.

After two years of living with coronavirus, the public conversation in the US is finally taking seriously the damage that has been done by the isolation and social disruption of the pandemic, often to people who are at low risk from the virus itself. Drug overdoses, homicides, and traffic deaths are all up significantly. In 2020, slightly more Americans under the age of 65 died from alcohol-related health problems than from the virus. Mental health among teenagers has taken a nosedive. 

Americans desperately need a return to normal. Yet Philadelphia’s eagerness to return to mandates, even in the face of CDC guidance and the recommendations of local experts, suggests a future in which alienating mitigation measures remain in place indefinitely, ready to snap back whenever case counts rise, even if they are disconnected from more serious measures like hospitalisations and deaths. It is precisely because mask mandates are more symbolic than practical — because they signal that we cannot leave the virus behind us — that they should be resisted except as a measure of last resort.

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet