Jun. 28—With Pennsylvania's mask mandate set to expire on Monday, there's a sense the milestone marks an unofficial finish line of sorts for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many Berks Countians sound eager to move on and, indeed, quite a few already have. Yet, there are still pockets of the community preaching caution, or where proceedings may continue to look and feel unfamiliar in the months ahead — particularly with respect to mask-wearing.
Though the state will not reach Gov. Tom Wolf's goal of 70% of its adult population receiving the coronavirus vaccine by June 28 for the mandate to end, no new edict or 11th-hour extension appears to be on the way.
That doesn't necessarily mean masks are disappearing entirely from everyday life.
People who have yet to receive the vaccine, those who experience themselves or are around others with underlying health issues, concerned parents or teachers who are around young children, businesses with additional locations in places where mandates are not yet lifted and workers in professions that wear face coverings ordinarily may all choose to continue to mask up.
The difference is, for most, it will be discretionary rather than the rule.
In no place is that perhaps more evident than in our local businesses, which have been in the midst of a transition back to "normal" for awhile now.
'It's not a pain'
Frequent any number or type of establishments in Berks and you might get the feeling the mask mandate ended weeks ago.
When the CDC made the announcement in May that people who received the vaccine didn't need to wear masks, many stores, restaurants and workplaces followed suit by relaxing their mask policies accordingly — even though the state's mandate remained in place.
The result was a mix of confusion, resignation and, ultimately, relief. Not much changed after Gov. Tom Wolf later in May added that the mask mandate would end Monday.
"We ask that people who are vaccinated, do what you want, and our employees, once they've been vaccinated, do what you want here," said Bill Parker, a manager at P.J. Whelihan's Pub + Restaurant in Spring Township, describing what has become a common stance around Berks.
Despite the policy tweak, he estimated around 60% of the staff there are still wearing masks.
With 20 total locations, however, including five in New Jersey, P.J. Whelihan's won't be ditching masks along with Pennsylvania. In fact, Parker said the restaurant hasn't even received a straight answer from the state on masks beyond Monday.
"We've all seen on Facebook, we've all heard through other people that June 28 is the end of the whole thing," Parker said. "No one has actually given us an official word.
"We're going to follow our company guidelines across the board. Just because the mandate may be lifted in Pa., it may not be in Jersey."
Smaller, more nimble businesses aren't waiting to react.
"I just started taking mine off," said John Berkley, owner of Niles Berkley Barber Shop in Muhlenberg Township, noting 99% of his customers are no longer wearing masks. "But I tell ya, I was one of the last to do it."
Berkley's daughter is a nurse, so he knows the virus is pretty scary stuff. He's also well aware there isn't a magic date when COVID will suddenly be over.
He says he's vaccinated now, though, as are a majority of his customers, so he finally made the call to take down the "masks required" sign in the window based on their response.
"When I did have it on, most people said you can take it off," Berkley said. "It's not a pain to wear them, but it's easier without them."
Similarly, Max Hirneisen wasn't wearing one in his store, Symbiote Collectibles in West Reading, though he'll put it on if a customer comes in with a mask.
But not very long ago, Hirneisen — who has an underlying health condition — recalls people yelling at him over masks.
While he's comfortable without one since getting the vaccine, he felt the CDC put businesses such as his in a weird place with the announcement in May that people who got the shot don't need them.
"If you're coming in without a mask, I guess you have the vaccine," Hirneisen said. "At least, I hope you do.
"I kind of wish they would pick one or the other. Either everybody has to wear them or nobody does."
The impact of the state's COVID guidelines stretched beyond masks for some businesses, and some may have no intention of going to back to ways of old right now, if ever.
While fast-food chains are likely to soon reopen dining rooms shuttered by the coronavirus, if they haven't done so already, Tony's Al Taglio in West Reading has no such plans. The popular pizza and sandwich shop has been serving food from a makeshift takeout window since the pandemic began.
It's no longer out of concerns for masks, social distancing or any other state restriction, however. Antonio "Tony" Lavigna cited reasons such as staffing to remain takeout-only, even if the pandemic did play a role at the start.
"It certainly pushed us in this direction," Lavigna said.
Health experts say the dropping of the mask mandate isn't crossing the pandemic finish line.
"It does not signal the end of the pandemic," said Casey Pinto, a professor of public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey. "Looking at numbers and looking at different states and looking at people who are much smarter than myself, they say that we're kind of in the final hurdle. The best way to tell that you're out of it is if the virus stops transmission regularly."
When that will be is still unknown, but we are not there even with mitigation efforts going away. Pinto pointed to the 1918 flu pandemic that the COVID pandemic has often been compared to.
"That took a solid two years to really get out of, but the virus is still around," she said. "That virus hasn't completely gone away despite the (1918) pandemic ending. Very unlikely, but maybe this is the end of the pandemic, but what's more likely going to happen is we're going to have one more winter where we really worry about COVID because everybody goes back indoors and it's going to spread."
Even when there are no new cases of COVID in a county, state or the country, the pandemic will not be considered over if there are still areas reporting new cases. As was seen with the spread of COVID, travel has made it easy for viruses to cross borders.
"We have to paint this pandemic in a global perspective," said Dr. Debra Powell, chief of the division of infectious disease and medical director of infection prevention at Reading Hospital. "It's not just Pennsylvania, and it's not just the U.S. It's the whole world. So we're seeing outbreaks in other places and it's definitely still circulating."
The virus continuing to circulate and cause outbreaks not only prolongs the pandemic, but also increases the number of variants that pop up. Some of the variants are more infectious.
"We're talking about the delta variant. There'll be an Epsilon variant and there will be others," Powell said. "We're going to keep going because the virus will continue to mutate as it spreads. We won't be done with the pandemic until the virus is controlled worldwide."
While the currently available vaccines are effective at stopping COVID, the effectiveness may not be as strong with variants. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90% effective against COVID.
"We're fortunate that with the delta variant, the current Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are still highly effective, in the high 80s," Powell said. "Right now we're still OK. But the next variant, we may not be as fortunate."
The way to stop the virus from circulating and creating new variants is through vaccination, according to Powell and Pinto.
Every fully vaccinated person brings their community one step closer to herd immunity which drastically limits the spread of the virus and protects those who are unable to get vaccinated.
"We saw in this country, the more people that are immune by either natural disease, which you really don't want to go that way, or vaccine, you get closer and closer to herd immunity," Powell said. "That means that there are fewer opportunities for the virus to find a susceptible host and that's what we're looking to do across the whole world. It's going to take us a while to get to that point."
"If we haven't reached heard immunity as we take the masks off, it puts the people who have not gotten the vaccine or had COVID in the past at a high risk of getting COVID," Powell said. "Then you see a resurgence."
COVID spreads so easily that it is likely a vaccination percentage higher than 70% will be needed to reach herd immunity, according to Pinto.
"It is one of those viruses that we can spread quite easily," she said. "It's similar to measles. Every person who has measles can effectively spread that virus to 13 other people. Because of how infectious it is, we need 92% to 93% of the population to be vaccinated to be considered to have herd immunity."
Pinto would put COVID's herd immunity percentage closer to that of measles. She believes 70% was chosen as the point officials hope will prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed due to another outbreak.
"Some of the epidemiologist I've been reading are saying it's more like 90% because this is nearly as contagious as measles," Pinto said.
Powell and Pinto encourage everyone to get vaccinated and for people to continue to be aware of the threat of the virus even with the end of mitigation measures and mandates. If someone is sick, they should stay home from work and if they must go out into public, they should wear a mask.
"We have to be hesitant and we have to realize that if there is a resurgence we need to go back to wearing masks again," Powell said. "You may want to keep your masks because we don't know what's going to happen in the future. Our behavior will tell. If we do the right things and we encourage people to get the vaccine, I think we'll be in a good spot."
In addition to the lifting of the last statewide coronavirus mandate, the Berks County commissioners announced last week that they will be ending their COVID emergency declaration on Monday after 15 months under the order. And the county's mass vaccine clinic is set to close at the end of July.
But, they stressed, that doesn't mean their work is done.
In response to questions from the Reading Eagle about the future role of the county, commissioners Christian Leinbach, Kevin Barnhardt and Michael Rivera issued a joint statement. It said they will continue to communicate public health guidance, monitor the situation and implement best practices to keep county workers and those under county care healthy.
"The county plans to continue to help educate our employees and the public, and continue to encourage residents to get vaccinated to protect themselves and strengthen our community," they said. "Even though there may no longer be requirements to wear masks or practice social distancing, the county still expects our employees to be cognizant of basic public health practices."
Despite the mask mandate being lifted, the state as whole, as well as Berks individually, have still not met the benchmark the governor had initially set requiring that 70% of the population be vaccinated before he would end the order.
The commissioners said they understand that the benchmark was the estimated percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated to accomplish herd immunity. That said, they added, it is still a bit early to know if that is the correct benchmark.
"What we do know is that the more individuals who are vaccinated — or have some level of natural immunity from contracting COVID — the better off we all are," they said. "This is especially important in light of new variants."
The state health department does not track how many vaccinated people also had COVID.
And if those variants make their way to Berks, the commissioners said they are now in a better position to respond to a resurgence.
"The past 16 months have served as a general learning curve for everyone when it comes to better understanding public health and safety practices and how to pivot to virtual-focused living," they said. "The county has a stockpile of PPE materials and has workplace policies that can be easily implemented again if needed."
They added that the county also has a robust line of communication to the public, largely through its Do Your Part initiative and social media channels, to help relay information and educate the community.
The commissioners said that while the pandemic is certainly not over, the county is in a very good position.
"It is important to recognize the steps we have taken since March 2020 and be grateful that our residents have taken to heart the message of each person doing their part for the benefit of our community," they said, noting that last week Reading Hospital officials reported just four COVID patients and Penn State Health St. Joseph hospital officials reported they had none.
But they warned that residents still need to be cautious.
"To help keep momentum going into the fall, the county is strongly encouraging everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated," they said.
The world of education took a pretty hefty hit from the COVID pandemic.
When the infectious disease first began spreading widely across the state in March 2020, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools to close their doors. They remained shuttered for the rest of the school year.
When a new school year began in the fall, it was one unlike any that preceded it.
Some schools remained virtual. Others resumed in-person instruction, usually on a part-time basis.
And for the students and teachers who were in-person, their experience wasn't what they were used to.
Desks were spaced as far apart as possible, masks were worn, hallways were made one-way, plastic dividers were installed, health checks were done, sporting events and other extracurricular activities were canceled.
By this spring, things had improved quite a bit. Most schools had, a least partially, reopened for in-person classes.
Kids were back in classrooms, proms and graduation were held, sporting events took place with live crowds.
The school year that begins for most in late August will probably be a new normal slightly different from pre-COVID days.
"There will certainly be a return to normal mindset as school reopens in the fall, but there are also key positive changes that will continue as education and society evolves past this pandemic," said Andrew Potteiger, Brandywine Heights School District superintendent.
Potteiger said the pandemic forced schools to adapt and many of those adaptation are positive changes things that will likely stick around. That includes things like enhanced cleaning measures and virtual learning options.
"Systematic educational changes such as virtual learning and hybrid learning are elements that have been achieved," he said. "We would be foolish to simply return back to the one option school system of pre-COVID days. Embracing these systems can significantly help families and students that are still concerned with a full inclusion or have other personal reasons where an online environment is the preferred model of education."
Marybeth Torchia, acting superintendent of the Boyertown School District, said her district is putting together a health and safety plan for the 2021-22 school year. The state is requiring districts to create the plans, although they are much less in-depth than ones required for last school year.
"The plan will address face coverings, health and safety mitigation strategies regarding personal hygiene, cleaning and ventilation, the continued use of physical distancing strategies and the like," she said.
While the plan is not complete, it seams clear at least some of the new things that were done in response to COVID will likely be included.
"We plan to return to five days of in-person instruction for our students," Torchia said. "To say that classrooms will look as they did pre-pandemic, without all of the necessary guidelines and restrictions, would be premature. However, our goal is to return to a traditional classroom setting to the full extent possible."
The district is also working to develop an in-house virtual option where students can learn in real time in classes led by district teachers.
Andrew Netznik, Tulpehocken School District superintendent, said his district will no longer require students and staff to wear masks, although they can continue to do so if they choose. Other COVID changes like expensive sanitization equipment, enhanced cleaning practices and hand sanitizing stations will stick around.
"The ultimate goal is to operate as we did pre-COVID, but I think we learned a lot of good practices that can continue," he said.
Even if COVID is on the way out, some of what schools have learned in dealing with it will them deal with fighting illness during cold and flu season, Netznik said.
"COVID has forever changed out world and I think it is hard to say was are going back to pre-COVID times because we have learned a lot of valuable lessons during the pandemic that I am sure are here to stay," he said.
Colleges were also severely altered by the pandemic.
Campus were shut down in March 2020, and when the fall semester began many schools had total or increased virtual classes and all sorts of COVID mitigation practices in place.
And, also like K-12 school, things will likely look a lot more normal when the next school year starts.
At Kutztown University, for example, COVID mitigation restrictions such as social distancing requirements, dining restrictions, occupancy limits, public reporting of cases and mass screening have been lifted. And masks will no longer be required inside buildings.
Other health and wellness strategies will remain. Plexiglass dividers will remain in place and hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes will be present in classrooms.
And the school is strongly encouraging students and staff to get a COVID vaccine.
"While the university does not currently have the legal authority to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine of its students and employees, the COVID-19 vaccine is an important tool to help us end the pandemic and return to a primarily face-to-face environment for the fall semester," an online guide to the fall semester reads.
Officials at Penn State Berks said COVID mitigation practices will be rolled back Monday.
The school will no longer require vaccinated students and staff to wear masks and practice social distancing inside buildings and on public transportations. Those who are not vaccinated are asked to keep up those practices.
Penn State Berks is also trying to encourage students and employees to get vaccinated by offering a number of incentives.
As for what the fall will look like, school officials said more data on vaccination rate is needed to inform the decision-making process.
Carey Manzillo, director of communications at Albright College, said the tight-knit community of college campuses need to continue to be on high alert for any major virus, ranging from COVID to step.
What that will mean this fall still isn't completely clear.
"We really don't have a crystal ball, so our Pandemic Task Force will continue to meet weekly and assess the global, regional and local coronavirus situation in order to make changes as needed," Manzillo said. "We are continuing to follow guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pennsylvania Department of Health."
Manzillo said worldwide travel restriction will continue to impact study abroad programs, but other things like in-person community events will hopefully be back on the schedule.
(Reading Eagle reporters David Mekeel, Karen Shuey and Shea Singley contributed to this story.)