U.S. nears one million dead as mandates lift, leaving behind those with disabilities

It's still not apparent how masking negatively affects business operations or bottom line. What is apparent is that the world is more dangerous and less accessible for those with disabilities without masks.

Sign affixed to fencing at Chew Playground in South Philly that says the park is closed with graffiti asking, "Is it over yet?" scrawled onto it.
A City sign affixed to Chew Playground in South Philadelphia with someone having scrawled, “Is it over yet?” onto the alert.

Four thousand, eight hundred and eighty one Philadelphians are dead because of COVID-19. As of press time, the City’s Health Department says that along with those 4,881 neighbors, coworkers, friends, loved ones, and colleagues, laboratories, physicians, and rapid test kits diagnosed about 305,734 cases of COVID overall here in Philadelphia.

Nationwide, we are poised to hit one million dead within the next few weeks. “The sheer scale of the tragedy strains the moral imagination,” writes The Atlantic’s Ed Yong. Covering the terrible coronavirus from the start, Yong’s fidelity to the story, the constant recitation of the death tallies and reporting on the virus, likely makes the weight of that one million feel particularly staggering.

“On May 24, 2020, as the United States passed 100,000 recorded deaths, The New York Times filled its front page with the names of the dead, describing their loss as ‘incalculable,’” Yong adds. “Now the nation hurtles toward a milestone of 1 million. What is 10 times incalculable?”

Yong’s observation is one that we all mostly know to be true. There is a deep level of contradiction, nonsense, and hypocrisy in the way we as a society approached this virus, especially right now. At one point in COVID history, 2,000 deaths per day in the United States was cause for great consternation and grief.

Amid all this, the City has recently celebrated lifting most of its mask requirements. scrapping the protective barrier in almost all public settings and declaring “all clear.” 

This past Christmas, the CDC was greenlighting holiday get togethers as the death counts rose to levels not seen since the worst days of the entire pandemic.

In some places across the nation, we shuttered schools as unsafe but kept bars open.

The juxtaposition of hypocrisy and conviction, of claiming one thing is a crisis when something seemingly worse isn’t, of frenetic and ever changing rules and apparently values at the very top of government, has had a terrible effect on our nation’s response to the virus. The total number of Americans dead is currently somewhere around 980,000, a figure which places us number one in COVID deaths worldwide. Throughout the entire pandemic, the U.S. has consistently had one of the worst per capita death rates, too, amongst the richest nations.

How can you explain lifting mask mandates while the virus still rages today, new outbreaks are happening across our oceans right now just as they have started multiple times in the past including most recently with the Omicron variant, and people in general seem to still not be doing so well? We said viruses don’t recognize political boundaries, but did we mean it? Isn’t what’s going on elsewhere important to our health and vice versa?

Plus, I’m still not OK. Are you? Is anybody? What about more vulnerable communities?

The Health Department says that 18,621 Philadelphians live with diagnosed HIV. COVID seems to have blunted HIV diagnoses lately with new infections in 2020-21, but this corresponds with a reduction in testing since the start of the pandemic. It could be that they’re just not reaching everyone who is HIV+ with testing, in part. Or, infections could genuinely be going down. It will take time to figure that out.

Over 18,000 people equates to little over 1 percent of the city’s overall population. Here in Philadelphia, about half of this population, people living with diagnosed HIV, are virally suppressed or what’s called undetectable. Upon reaching this point, the HIV+ person cannot transmit HIV to sex partners and the long term outlook for them is much closer to typical than not. If a person is not virally suppressed or undetectable, this means they aren’t adhering to or responding to modern treatments, in some cases due to lack of access or other structural hurdles.

It isn’t a question that masking and other social distancing measures on transit and in public spaces kept this population of people, and populations like it, in Philadelphia safe. The question is more whether or not we as a society feel their lives and the lives of others with similar immunocompromised and other conditions are worth the public’s general inconvenience of masking up and taking modest precautions.

Accessibility advocate and self-described disabled actress Shannon DeVido looks at the situation as one laying bare the ableism inherent in society.

“The mask mandates being repealed feels like another example in a long line of examples how society treats people with disabilities as disposable,” she tells PW. “The pandemic exposed that all along. Even when you look back in the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was saying, ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s just people who are sick or elderly who are very high risk.’”

She adds that even if only the most vulnerable in society are at risk of serious complications or death, it says something if people just sort of shrug since it doesn’t directly affect them. “It’s as if their lives are disposable,” she explains.

Is she wrong?

“To be clear, I am not saying that the entire world is just giving people the middle finger and saying good luck. Many people do care and are trying to keep people safe. It just feels like when you remove mask mandates while the pandemic is still raging on…I mean it’s not gone away. We’re acting as though it’s just gone away.”

The City’s Health Department is quick to say that the concern over HIV+ Philadelphians who are not virally suppressed, while genuine, is not necessarily supported by data or the practical realities of running society.

“During flu season, there is always a risk of being exposed to flu,” says Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow. “Masks can help cut someone’s risk of respiratory virus exposure, but they cannot eliminate it,” he adds when asked about public masking. “Since the restaurant vaccine mandate and mask mandates have ended in Philadelphia, flu cases have been nearly zero. Due to that, we think the risk to Philadelphians, including those living with HIV or people who are not virally suppressed, is extremely low.”

It’s worth noting the mandates just lifted recently as flu season continues to wane, and many people are still unaware that even happened let alone comfortable with diving right back into “normal.” At its core, though, remains the question about whether we’re comfortable making decisions that bring back danger to people’s lives – especially if those dangers are seemingly unnecessarily courted by relaxing existing rules.

Typically, every year in America, the CDC says somewhere around 20,000-50,000 people die of flu. Those who succumb to flu are the same populations kept safe by social distancing measures for COVID. Flu deaths went almost entirely away for two years straight. Are we really eager to see them come back as a side effect of “being normal again?” What does normal even mean now?

“Every public health response to a disease, including flu and COVID, is a balancing act. The way to ensure that people are completely safe from COVID or flu is to institute a stay at home order,” explains Health Department spokesman Jim Garrow. The order he’s describing is colloquially known as the “lockdown.”

“I think that everyone agrees that should not be the go-to response to flu season. The next safest level would be something similar to our Safer at Home response, where there were mask requirements and proscribed social distancing.” It’s at this level we’ve been for most of the past several years. 

“Even when we did that, we saw businesses and the workers at those businesses suffering.”

How, exactly, asking people to wear masks negatively affects the actual operations or bottom line of a business isn’t immediately apparent.

Speaking with one local restaurateur with a location in South Philadelphia, the burden appeared more political than anything else. In order to speak candidly about masks at all, this owner requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal from anti-vaccine or anti-mask groups. That itself is a statement. It was also a common refrain: supporting science, embracing the mandates, refusing to ever say anything publicly about vaccines or masks for fear of the angry online mob.

“People who feel comfortable based on their own individual circumstances have been choosing to dine in for months now,” this business owner tells PW. “I don’t see this latest lift really changing anything for restaurants.”

Then, why even change it at all?

“I have supported mask mandates throughout the pandemic and worn them faithfully, but I think we are at a new phase. I think the restaurant industry has been in a different context all along due to the nature of having to remove your mask to eat. The biggest factor here was the individual’s level of comfort and whether or not they even wanted to dine out inside.”

Still, part of the reason this owner was reluctant to be identified was past run-ins with anti-mask people leaving negative reviews because the restaurant followed the rules and, frankly, the science.

Regardless of what’s going on with the mandates, William Way LGBT Community Center leader Chris Bartlett tells PW that masks are still going to be required when visiting the 13th and Spruce hub of the local LGBTQ community.

“We’re glad that the COVID pandemic trend seems to be moving in a positive direction in our region. This is a relief for all,” Bartlett says in a statement to PW. “Given that we serve a very diverse group of community stakeholders including seniors and those living with HIV and others who are potentially at greater risk for COVID complications, we feel we’re held to a higher standard than the City has currently set [so] we are keeping our mask mandate for the time being. We look forward to your visit,” Bartlett concludes, “and please bring a mask.”

It’s confusing to say the least to deal with 50 states with 50 different health agencies and governors and laws, each with their local counterparts. It’s compounded by the fact that, in the case of mask or vaccine mandates, even private businesses have in many cases enacted stricter requirements than the City.

“We’ve been here for 162 years, so we always take the long view,” Christopher Mullins, Jr., tells PW. He’s the owner and manager of McGillin’s Olde Ale House on Drury Street. He’s also been in the hospitality industry his entire life, the last 15 at McGillin’s.

For years known as a place that provides a welcome atmosphere for visitors to Philly – during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, MSNBC basically embedded the network there – McGillin’s is also known on the street as one of the more worker friendly businesses in the city.

It’s also a business that has had stricter requirements in place than the City mandated, requiring proof of vaccination status since last summer.

For Mullins and his colleagues, it was a no-brainer. “We try to build goodwill into everything we do. Some of our longer serving employees have been here decades. In one case for 45 years. We don’t do the churn and burn thing some hospitality businesses do. When you look at how many employees we had before COVID and how many we retained, it’s extremely high and looks even better when you learn about what’s going on elsewhere. While it took awhile to get everyone back based upon their level of comfort, our goal was always to get people back.”

Mullins goes on to say that his, like other businesses, went to great lengths to take of workers during the so-called lockdown. Safety was a priority coming back, too. But it was also personal.

“I just couldn’t do it,” he says, reflecting on the minimum required social distancing requirements. “We lost an employee who worked here for 25 years to the virus,” Mullins pauses. “We sponsored him as a citizen to this country. He was like family. He got COVID and died. This was a very strong, healthy man who died of COVID. People can say whatever they want, but for us it’s real.” 

So McGillin’s required vaccines to enter from the jump, well ahead of the City’s mandate. Nothing’s changed yet, either.

“We want to do right by our customers and staff. We’re doing this to safely operate. We take the long view,” Mullins adds, “I don’t want a reputation as one of those places that’s unregulated, that’s an illegal business, that doesn’t care about workers. I want to walk out of this thing being able to say that we did the right thing for our employees and our customers.”

He did add, however, that it’s the communication and implementation of any requirement that’s key. At McGillin’s discussions about the vaccine requirements happen outside the bar when checking IDs.

“Have the fight over the vaccine cards outside rather than the mask fight inside,” Mullins explains. “It’s way easier to fight them at the door than to worry about it being an issue inside.”

It’s not even an unpopular thing, the mandates.  Most Americans consistently and overwhelmingly support vaccine requirements, for instance. 

“We get it all the time. People are so happy that they felt extra safe. People give us accolades for doing the vaccine requirement early. I personally have nothing to regret and neither do our staff or managers. We survived the pandemic before this one. We survived Prohibition. We’ve survived both world wars. We’ve survived here,” he stops and thinks about what he’s about to say, “and it was because we tried to do the right thing.”

DeVido agrees about the messaging and implementation. The confusing patchwork of mandates and requirements lifting and coming down eventually get people so confused that they tune messages out completely.

But is the solution a perpetual lockdown? Is it either that or nothing at all? Is that the only choice?

“Can we live our lives the way that we have the past two years? No, absolutely not,” DeVido adds. “I think that having people quarantining for however long this is going to continue isn’t feasible. And I totally understand that. But there needs to be clear, unified messaging and unfortunately with our current political climate, I’m afraid people with disabilities like myself are going to feel left behind.”

    • Josh Kruger wearing a cloth surgical mask while wearing a tie and waterproof topcoat with City Hall's clock tower.

      Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Weekly. His past work includes years as a journalist with Philadelphia Weekly, his PW column “The Uncomfortable Whole” winning multiple awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Place award for newspaper commentary in both 2014 and 2015. Josh has written for a variety of local and national publications, and his work often includes his perspective as someone with lived experience with HIV, homelessness, poverty, trauma, and addiction along with expert analysis from years of experience in journalism and public service following a five year stint in local government communications. He is a member of Philly’s local LGBTQ community, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a militant bicyclist, and resident of the Point Breeze section of the city with his cat, a senior tom named Mason.

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