Picture of the Philadelphia skyline.
Dec 2, 2021

Axios Philadelphia

Happy Thursday, Philly!

  • Today's weather: Sunny and warm again as temperatures reach the lower 60s. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Situational awareness: A man who spent more than 30 years in prison and 25 on death row before getting exonerated is suing the city. (Dig deeper via WHYY.)

Today's newsletter is 859 words — a 3.5-minute read.

1 big thing: Philly cautiously waits for Omicron

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The Omicron variant hasn't yet been detected in Philadelphia, but the city is bracing for the inevitable.

Driving the news: The first U.S. case of the new coronavirus variant was reported in California on Wednesday.

  • E. John Wherry, an immunologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, expects Omicron to turn up in Philadelphia and other major cities within a week.

State of play: COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Philly — with a 5% positivity rate as of Wednesday, up from 3% two weeks ago. But it's still a far cry compared to this time last December, when the city had an 11.7% positivity rate.

  • Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said the city isn't issuing any new COVID restrictions at this time, opting to continue pushing vaccine mandates and mask-wearing.
  • Yes, but: Bettigole warned, "I can't promise that will continue to be the case. We don't know what's coming with Omicron."

What they're saying: The Omicron variant appears to be more transmissible compared to the Delta variant, Bettigole said.

  • It's unknown how the new variant affects people who are vaccinated, but she expects some decrease in efficacy. Bettigole said the current vaccines could be 80-85% effective or lower.
  • Bettigole advises anyone who is not vaccinated or hasn't had their booster to avoid gathering indoors.

Meanwhile, Wherry said Omicron could lead to an increase in infections, including among the vaccinated population, due to the variant's high number of mutations, but it remains to be seen whether hospitalizations would also rise.

  • "With more mutations, it's going to be more evasive. It's going to get around our antibodies even better," he said.

What's next: Bettigole said she wants to build a sequencing unit within the city's public health lab.

  • Currently, the city works with both the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania, which conduct the main sequencing.
2. SEPTA rolls out holiday buses

SEPTA bus drivers and workers from the transit agency's Southern District won first place in an annual holiday vehicle decoration contest. Photo: Mike D'Onofrio/Axios

SEPTA workers are decking out the transit agency's buses for the holidays.

What's happening: Eight bus districts fought for bragging rights at an annual holiday vehicle decoration contest on Wednesday.

  • Bus drivers and other employees showcased their themed buses at SEPTA's Southern District building in South Philly.

"Southern Soul Bus" from SEPTA's Southern District won first place.

  • Second place: Frankford District's "SpongeBob Christmas."
  • Third place: Victory District's "Holidays at Hogwarts."

Want to see one of the holiday buses for yourself? Check out SEPTA's online calendar.

Frankford District's "SpongeBob Christmas" took home second place. Photo: Mike D'Onofrio/Axios
Victory District's "Holidays at Hogwarts" took home third place. Photo: Mike D'Onofrio/Axios
3. News Market

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

🚐 Check out this couple who left their South Philly apartment and committed to living — and traveling — in a van. (Billy Penn)

♻️ Despite the plastic bag ban going into effect in October, most businesses aren't complying. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

🪓 Belmont Plateau's nearly century-old sugar maple tree will be felled this month due to its declining health. (Philly Voice)

4. Center City's retail rebound

Shoppers walk past Urban Outfitters in Center City. Photo courtesy of Matt Stanley/Center City District

Center City retailers are rebounding from the economic damage caused by the pandemic, but challenges remain, a new report found.

Driving the news: Returning shoppers, students, tourists and workers have helped fuel an economic recovery for businesses in the city's core downtown this year, according to the report by the Center City District and Central Philadelphia Development Corporation.

Details: The report, published last month, found that 67 retailers and restaurants have opened in Center City so far this year. Other key takeaways include:

  • A total of 68 businesses were temporarily closed as of September, down from 646 in June 2020.
  • Pedestrian traffic rose to more than 309,000 in October, up from 108,300 in April 2020.
  • Retail and restaurant demand is estimated at $1.1 billion this year in core Center City and in excess of $2 billion in Greater Philadelphia.

Zoom out: 15 major projects, including two office buildings and 2,980 new housing units, are now under construction in the area.

Yes, but: Challenges persist. The business vacancy rate in Center City was 17.4% in September, but it remains even higher in prime retail corridors like West Chestnut Street (25%).

  • Several national retailers closed stores in Center City during the pandemic, including Gap, Banana Republic, Aldo and Ann Taylor.
  • Exactly 81 fewer food establishments were in the downtown area in September compared to before the pandemic.
  • About 58% of Center City workers continue to work remotely.

What they're saying: Center City District president Paul Levy said the recovery shows the district is much more resilient than people realized.

  • While several businesses closed during the pandemic, he noted that a lot of digitally native retailers moved into those vacant storefronts.
  • "With the appropriate precautions, we feel pretty optimistic about the process of recovery," Levy said.
5. "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" breaks TV record

The cast of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" at the 2017 Vulture Festival in Los Angeles. Photo: Richard Shotwell/AP

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" premiered its 15th season last night on FXX, making it the longest-running live-action comedy in history.

State of play: The show premiered in 2005, showcasing a group of rude friends who own and operate a bar, Paddy's Pub. It quickly became one of the most beloved shows based in Philly.

Of note: The show was renewed for four seasons total in December 2020, meaning it'll run at least until season 18.

Watch: Episodes will air Wednesdays at 10pm until the end of the season.

🎄 Mike is debating whether to bring his toddler to the city's tree lighting ceremony outside City Hall tonight.

🐈 Taylor is buying way too many things already for her kitten. She will bring the cat home this weekend.