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Restaurant owners react to vaccine mandate for indoor dining

Like other bar and restaurant operators, Tracy Hardy has been coping with various city government regulations since the pandemic hit last year.

Now the co-owner of Lou & Choo’s Lounge is concerned about the new city mandate requiring proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to eat indoors in restaurants or drink inside bars, effective Jan. 3. He understands why the mandate is needed, however, he says the requirement could possibly diminish revenue for bars and restaurants.

Hardy said representatives from neighborhood businesses needed to be at the table when it comes to creating government mandates like this.

“I’m going to be compliant, but there should be some input from the business community, and not just the Center City business community but the neighborhood businesses,” he said.

Under the new mandate, a recent negative COVID-19 test will also be accepted initially. However, after Jan. 17, negative COVID-19 tests will no longer be accepted and vaccines are required.

Lou & Choo’s will start requiring its customers to show proof of vaccination on Monday.

“This will give us a trial run to get it correct so we’ll be compliant by Jan. 3,” Hardy said.

He also wonders how his staff can accurately determine whether customers are presenting real vaccination cards.

“How do we know what’s a legitimate one and what’s not a legitimate one?,” Hardy said.

Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said that people who plan to dine at restaurants must show their official vaccination card and photo identification. They can also use a cell phone photo of the card or an app where users have uploaded their vaccination cards, government ID and picture.

Hardy is also concerned about people creating problems for businesses that refuse to serve customers who don’t produce proof of being vaccinated.

The mandate comes as the legendary Hunting Park lounge is experiencing a slump in revenue. Hardy says the revenue is down by 47% because of the pandemic.

“It’s a blessing that we were able to keep everybody employed,” said Hardy, who has a staff of 25 people.

“It’s definitely been a struggle,” he said. “It continuously has us reinventing the wheel — trying to be creative to sustain the business.”

“Our bar and restaurant is basically a destination spot so people come to it,“ Hardy continued. “It’s very hard to reinvent the wheel of becoming a to-go spot, and that really didn’t help us at all.”

Kiya McNeil, co-owner of the Germantown-based Bistro on the Mall, says the new mandate could be problematic.

“With the new mandate we see two problems,” said McNeil, who opened her restaurant last August. “One, it’s going to kill our dine-in business. And two, there is just no way of enforcing people to bring their cards. How are we going to enforce it?”

She thinks that enforcement of having people show proof of vaccination can become an issue because there are some customers who won’t want to comply with the current mask mandate.

“What we are not trying to do is to get into arguments with our customers,” McNeil said. “There are some people who just don’t want to comply, and that’s going to be an issue.”

Barbara Devan, owner of the West Philadelphia-based Tasties soul food restaurant, is also concerned that the mandate could cause a decrease in business. And said the mandate will lead to more work for her employees.

“It’s just more work and a bigger headache,” Devan said. “We have to get used to whatever rules they are putting in place. We’re going to follow the rules and the regulations even if we don’t like it.”

The city’s new vaccination mandate applies to bowling alleys, casinos (where food is served on the floor), indoor restaurants, bars, food courts, movie theaters, catering halls, sports venues that serve food and cafes within larger establishments.

The rule calls for staff that work in these restaurants to have at least one dose of vaccine by Jan. 3 and to complete their vaccine series by Feb. 3. This also applies to children ages 5 through 11 years old.

The new rule does not apply to children younger than 5 or people with valid medical or religious exemptions. Bettigole said these individuals must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours if they are going into an establishment that seats more than 1,000 people. This requirement does not apply to children under age 2, who cannot be tested easily for COVID-19.

CDC panel recommends Pfizer, Moderna COVID shots over J&J's

Most Americans should be given the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines instead of the Johnson & Johnson shot that can cause rare but serious blood clots, U.S. health advisers recommended Thursday.

The strange clotting problem has caused nine confirmed deaths after J&J vaccinations — while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines don’t come with that risk and also appear more effective, advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

It’s an unusual move and the CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, must decide whether to accept the panel’s advice.

Until now the U.S. has treated all three COVID-19 vaccines available to Americans as an equal choice, since large studies found they all offered strong protection and early supplies were limited. J&J’s vaccine initially was welcomed as a single-dose option that could be especially important for hard-to-reach groups like homeless people who might not get the needed second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna options.

But the CDC’s advisers said Thursday that it was time to recognize a lot has changed since vaccines began rolling out a year ago. More than 200 million Americans are considered fully vaccinated, including about 16 million who got the J&J shot.

New data from unprecedented safety tracking of all those vaccinations persuaded the panel that while the blood clots linked to J&J’s vaccine remain very rare, they’re still occurring and not just in younger women as originally thought.

In a unanimous vote, the advisers decided the safer Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are preferred. But they said the shot made by J&J’s Janssen division still should be available if someone really wants it — or has a severe allergy to the other options.

“I would not recommend the Janssen vaccine to my family members” but some patients may — and should be able to — choose that shot, said CDC adviser Dr. Beth Bell of the University of Washington.

The clotting problems first came up last spring, with the J&J shot in the U.S. and with a similar vaccine made by AstraZeneca that is used in other countries. Eventually U.S. regulators decided the benefits of J&J’s one-and-done vaccine outweighed what was considered a very rare risk — as long as recipients were warned.

European regulators likewise continued to recommend AstraZeneca’s two-dose vaccine although, because early reports were mostly in younger women, some countries issued age restrictions.

COVID-19 causes deadly blood clots, too. But the vaccine-linked kind is different, believed to form because of a rogue immune reaction to the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines because of how they’re made. It forms in unusual places, such as veins that drain blood from the brain, and in patients who also develop abnormally low levels of the platelets that form clots. Symptoms of the unusual clots, dubbed “thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome,” include severe headaches a week or two after the J&J vaccination — not right away — as well as abdominal pain and nausea.

While it’s still very rare, the Food and Drug Administration told health care providers this week that more cases have occurred after J&J vaccinations since the spring. They occur most in women ages 30 to 49 — about once for every 100,000 doses administered, the FDA said.

Overall, the government has confirmed 54 clot cases— 37 in women and 17 in men, and nine deaths that included two men, the CDC’s Dr. Isaac See said Thursday. He said two additional deaths are suspected.

The CDC decides how vaccines should be used in the U.S., and its advisers called the continuing deaths troubling. In comparing the pros and cons of all the vaccines, the panelists agreed that side effects from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines weren’t as serious — and that supplies now are plentiful.

Nor is J&J still considered a one-and-done vaccine, several advisers noted. The single-dose option didn’t prove quite as protective as two doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Plus, with extra-contagious virus mutants now spreading, booster doses now are recommended.

Several countries, including Canada, already have policies that give preference to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. But J&J told the committee its vaccine still offers strong protection and is a critical option especially in parts of the world without plentiful vaccine supplies or for people who don’t want a two-dose shot.

While blood clots are rare, “unfortunately cases of COVID-19 are not,” J&J’s Dr. Penny Heaton said.

The U.S. is fortunate in its vaccine availability and Thursday’s action shouldn’t discourage use of J&J’s vaccine in places around the world where it’s needed, said CDC adviser Dr. Matthew Daley of Kaiser Permanente Colorado.

The FDA also warned this week that another dose of the J&J vaccine shouldn’t be given to anyone who developed a clot following either a J&J or AstraZeneca shot.

The committee also heard some of the first data on reported side effects of Pfizer vaccinations in younger children. Early last month, the CDC recommended a two-dose series for that age group, and more than 7 million doses have been given so far. But few problems have been reported. Of the 80 reported cases of serious side effects, about 10 involved a form of inflammation that has been seen in male teens and young adults.

Affordable housing inclusion bill passes in City Council

City Council passed a mixed overlay bill Thursday to address affordable housing in Philadelphia. It’s the first mandatory legislation of its kind that includes units of affordable housing as a part of new housing development projects.

The bill was introduced by Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier, D-3rd District, and María Quiñones Sánchez, D-7th District, applying to housing projects in those districts.

Under this legislation, 20% of any new buildings that house 10 or more units within the districts’ overlay boundaries must be set aside for affordable housing, with restricted pricing for 50 years.

“The continued growth of our city is important, but it’s unacceptable if it comes at the detriment of vulnerable Philadelphians,” Gauthier said. “With many developers prioritizing profits, regardless of the social repercussions, the best way for us to ensure that affordable housing options remain available in desirable neighborhoods over the long-term is to enact policy change. I’m grateful to Councilmember Sánchez for her partnership in this effort and to my Council colleagues for their support of this legislation.”

At least 15% of the units have to be on-site of the housing project; however, the bill offers the chance to apply for a waiver from the Planning Department to fill up to 5% of the requirement with other housing opportunities.

The units have to be affordable to renters who earn up to 40% of the area’s median income and up to 60% of the median income for owner-occupied households.

Currently, there are incentives to build affordable housing under the Philadelphia Zoning Code. Still, it’s only optional, and there are no requirements based on where development projects are being done.

“Diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods need strong public policy that incentivizes and promotes equitable development,” Sánchez said. “Piloting more aggressive public policy will help us meet the greater housing needs.”

As housing developments continue to break ground throughout the city, demand for more affordable units exceeds supply.

According to a news release from Gauthier’s office, only 30% of the available units in her district cost less than $750 a month. In addition, only 35% of the people in that area can afford to pay $750 and up in monthly rental agreements.

This legislation attempts to bridge the gap as gentrification drives up the prices of housing options throughout Philadelphia.

“This legislation has the potential to significantly expand housing opportunities for Philadelphians, and help to create integrated neighborhoods with improved health and quality of life between and across generations — making possible a more equitable, inclusive future in Philadelphia,” said Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney for housing policy at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. “The legislation is practical, simple to administer, sustainable, and balances the needs of developers and housing providers with the individuals and families who will access affordable quality housing, and the communities they will all live, work, play, grow, and thrive in.”

The Rev. Jay Broadnax of Mount Pisgah A.M.E. Church said there’s a need for blending socioeconomic backgrounds in the district’s neighborhoods, and that these new developments have an opportunity to achieve that.

“We need legislation that encourages that kind of balance, and I believe that this Mixed-Income Neighborhoods Overlay Bill is a critical first step in helping to foster that kind of balance,” he said.

Once signed by Mayor Jim Kenney, the bill would go into effect after six months.

In other City Council business Thursday, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, D-2nd District, had a resolution approved urging President Joe Biden and the Department of Justice to finalize a proposed rule requiring serial numbers on privately made firearms, also known as “ghost guns.” The resolution also asks that background checks be required by firearms dealers.

At last Wednesday’s gun violence briefing by Kenney and the Philadelphia Police Department, Deputy Commissioner Joel Dales said 537 “ghost guns” have been recovered this year.

Johnson also had a resolution approved to allow special hearings examining the national youth mental health crisis and its role in gun violence plaguing not only Philadelphia but the nation.

As of Tuesday, there have been 199 under-18 individuals shot in Philadelphia and 31 fatally in 2021.

Thursday’s City Council session was the last one for 2021. Meetings will resume Jan. 20, 2022.

Panel gives state House, Senate district maps preliminary OK

HARRISBURG — Roughly one in 10 Pennsylvania lawmakers, mostly House Republicans, will face off against their colleagues under maps approved by the state legislative redistricting panel on Thursday afternoon.

In two votes, one unanimous, one 3-2, the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission approved the preliminary maps after an hour of pointed but respectful debate.

These lines have a long path to becoming law: 30 days of public comment, a second vote, and 30 days for potential legal challenges remain. But once a new map is implemented, it will fundamentally alter the political balance of power in Harrisburg for the next decade.

The commission consists of the four floor leaders — House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia; House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre; Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland; and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny — plus a fifth member serving as its chairperson, former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who was picked by the state Supreme Court to lead the commission.

“In the course of recent months, I have regularly heard how easy it is to draw legislative maps,” Nordenberg said. But “my own recent experience there is nothing easy about drawing these maps. That is particularly true when they must ultimately be supported by a majority of a small group, and not drawn in the comfort of one’s study in their home.”

Pennsylvania’s 203 House districts and 50 Senate districts must be redrawn to match the state’s changing population. According to the U.S. Census results, most of the commonwealth’s population gains were in the eastern half of the state, while most of its losses were in the western half.

Those shifts meant that political observers expected a handful of seats to shift from Republican areas to more purple political terrain in the southeast. In the end, Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Montgomery counties gained new seats, all of which likely would be Democratic

The House map creates six Republican-on-Republican primaries, one Democrat-on-Democrat primary, and four incumbent general election matchups, for a total of at least 22 incumbents drawn together.

Nordenberg and McClinton argued that this redraw was a necessary consequence of the state’s shifting population, an effort to expand minority representation through seven new districts without incumbents, and an attempt to undo “decades of gerrymandering in previous reapportionment cycles,” as McClinton said in a written statement.

“The preliminary plan that is presented today substantially corrects these wrongs through faithful adherence to the requirements in the Pennsylvania Constitution,” McClinton concluded.

Benninghoff, however, disagreed. He pointed to a handful of misshapen districts in central Pennsylvania, the splitting of central Pennsylvania cities such as Lancaster and Harrisburg, as well as an analysis by Brigham Young University political scientist Michael Barber, to argue the maps were an “extreme partisan gerrymander favoring Democrats.

“I’m sure that in order to justify this map, you will hear a lot of loaded terms like ‘competitiveness’ and ‘proportionality,’” Benninghoff said. “Neither of those terms appear in our state constitution.”

According to an initial analysis through Dave’s Redistricting App, an online redistricting website, 93 House district lean Democratic, 81 lean Republican, and 29 are competitive — though the app gives the map low marks overall for competition

The large number of Republican primaries also angered the GOP caucus. State Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Washington, is one of the incumbents who faces a primary challenge.

He told the Capital-Star that he wanted a clearer picture of how and why Nordenberg and his staff drew the map they drew, pointing to widespread population discrepancies and split municipalities.

Such moves are par for the course in redistricting, Ortitay acknowledged. But he thought that the whole aim of Nordenberg as chair of the commission “was to make that different,” avoiding the disproportionate, meandering districts that have frustrated advocates.

As for his potential primary against colleague state Rep. Mike Puskaric, R-Washington, “until I see that final map, I’m not ready to say ‘Screw you man, I’m coming for ya,’” Ortitay said.

The Senate draft appears fairer to sitting lawmakers. There is just one incumbent-on-incumbent matchup in northeastern Pennsylvania, between Sen. John Yudichak, an independent who caucuses with Republicans, and GOP state Sen. Lisa Baker, both of Luzerne County.

The map does put Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, into a much more Democratic seat made up of Harrisburg and its suburbs, without Republican Perry County. And the map moves GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman’s seat in Centre County south to Cumberland County, creating an open opportunity. Corman, who is seeking the 2022 GOP nomination for governor, has said he will not seek reelection next year.

The Senate, Nordenberg said, was drawn largely through negotiations directly between Senate leaders Costa and Ward. However, the House leaders, Nordenberg said, had “limited interactions,” and the resulting map was ”guided by [the commission’s] responses” to them.

In the end, the commission separated the votes on the maps, breaking with precedent. Instead, the Senate map was approved unanimously, and the House map in a 3-2 vote, with the Republican leaders dissenting and Nordenberg voting with the Democratic leaders.

With the map’s approval Thursday, the public — including citizens and lawmakers — has 30 days to submit comments to the commission. The commission must then address those comments and produce a final map before the end of that same period.

Capital observers also expected legal challenges to the maps, which could further complicate their implementation.

Critics have 30 days after the final maps are implemented to file a challenge in the state Supreme Court, according to the state constitution. The court can either affirm the map, or ask for a redraw.

In 2011, challenges to the commission’s initial map succeeded, and the commission had to start again. The ruling forced lawmakers to run in their old districts in 2012.

All of this is taking place against another deadline — Jan. 24, 2022, when the Department of State said it needed the final legislative and congressional maps by, to allow for the state’s May 2022 primary to go forward as planned.

Nordenberg agreed that their timeline was tight, but thought that the commission could still get maps in place in time for the primary.

As for a legal challenge, “rather than being concerned, I simply anticipate that there will be legal challenges to the plan, as there consistently have been.”

Even the preliminary map, which will be subject to change, would stand up to legal challenges, Nordenberg argued.