Unmasking Covid

by Stacia Friedman
Posted 10/7/21

I am one of thousands of immunocompromised Philadelphians for whom taking public transportation, shopping for groceries or dining with friends at even an outdoor café presents serious risk.

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Unmasking Covid


Last week, I dropped my car off for inspection at Lehmann’s Garage in Chestnut Hill and took the 23 Bus home to Mt. Airy. At 8:30 am, I was the only passenger, and as the driver bombed down Germantown Avenue, I felt elated. Why? Because I am one of thousands of immunocompromised Philadelphians for whom taking public transportation, shopping for groceries or dining with friends at even an outdoor café presents serious risk.

I am not alone. There are more than 400 immunocompromised disorders, including: Diabetes, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Heart Disease, Asthma, Lung Disease, HIV, Kidney Disease, Liver Disease, Obesity and some forms of Cancer. Chances are you know a child or adult who falls into this category, perhaps in your own family. While a healthy, vaccinated individual has a good chance of surviving Covid, vaccines offer no such guarantee to the immunocompromised.

Which is why I seriously regret getting on a SEPTA bus again that afternoon at 3:30pm. I boarded it, not realizing it was packed to the rafters with school children. Dozens of kids were standing in the aisles. Meanwhile, every seat in the front, normally  reserved for “Seniors” and “Disabled,” had been claimed by a squirming middle school student.

I tried to calm myself, remembering that SEPTA buses have a special air filtration system. But as I looked at the children’s faces, my anxiety went into high gear. Face masks are required to enter a SEPTA bus and every child has one. But there is, apparently, no requirement to wear them correctly. Most students wore their mask below their nose, providing no protection for themselves or others.

I had to wonder. If Philadelphia public schools have not used the pandemic as a “teachable moment,” what is going on? Corinne Scioli, Principal of Jenks Academy in Chestnut Hill put my fears to rest.

“Our health and safety guidelines are of utmost importance for us to be a successful 100% in person learning environment, '' said Scioli. “We have mask and sanitizing stations at each of our entrances. Our school nurse and classroom teachers model appropriate mask wearing for our students. We also have signage throughout our building that post health and safety protocols about social distancing, mask wearing, sanitizing and hand washing. We have stayed healthy and well since school opened.”

That is good news for parents of children who attend Jenks. But just down the road at Emlen Elementary, 6501 Chew Street in East Mt. Airy, an outbreak of Covid among six students forced the school to shut its doors temporarily and return to online learning. Sadly, this is just one of five recent Philadelphia school closures due to the pandemic.

For their part, SEPTA has a no-nonsense policy. “All SEPTA employees are instructed to remind passengers about the mask requirement. When possible, they can provide customers with a free mask,” stated Andrew Busch | SEPTA Director of Media Relations. “There is signage posted throughout the system and on vehicles about the mask requirement, and that the mask needs to cover the nose and mouth. Compliance with proper wearing of masks has consistently been 90% or more over the last year.”

Unfortunately, policy and reality don’t always mix, especially when bus drivers have to deal with the 55,000 students who ride SEPTA every school day. Who wants to tell a fifth grader, high on after-school candy, that they cannot board the bus until they cover their nose?

Mask Mandate

Remember those signs at the entrances of supermarkets, boutiques, beauty parlors and banks that stated, “Please Wear Face Masks”?  It is no longer optional. Six weeks ago, the Philadelphia Board of Health issued a new mandate, requiring masks be worn indoors at all businesses that do not require vaccination for employees and patrons. That means everyone on site is required to wear a mask.  A business that fails to comply, will receive warnings before being shut down.

Earlier this summer, I noticed customers inside Fresh Market, 8208 Germantown Avenue, without masks. What puzzled me even more were uniformed employees who wore their masks like a mustache, draped below their nose. Going forward, rather than blowing the whistle on Fresh Market employees, I now use Weavers Ways convenient online Curb-Side Pick-Up service. (The last time I entered their Chestnut Hill location, I encountered a guy wearing his mask under his chin while munching on a soft pretzel.)

Understandably, we all suffer from pandemic fatigue. But as the Zip Code in Philadelphia with the highest vaccination rate and lowest incidence of Covid, Chestnut Hill cannot afford to turn its back on the City and disengage. Every lapse in following CDC guidelines in our own community will result in the virus spreading, lasting longer and, ultimately, the loss of precious life. If you see something, don’t just say something. Do something.