The day after announcing that he planned to end New York City’s mask mandate for public schools and a proof-of-vaccination requirement for indoor dining, gyms and entertainment venues, Mayor Eric Adams smiled broadly as he rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
His Monday appearance at Wall Street was part his campaign to restore normalcy to a community that has been devastated by the coronavirus. His approach includes the end of mandates, which were scheduled for March 7.
After meeting with top union leaders, health advisors, and watching the city’s hospitalizations and virus cases drop dramatically, Mr. Adams decided to relax the restrictions.
“The goal was to put in place ways to encourage people to get vaccinated,” Mr. Adams said at a news conference in the Bronx. “I believe we’ve accomplished that.”
According to city data, nearly 77 percent of New York City residents have been fully vaccinated. This includes almost 87 percent of adults. Children are at lower rates; only 56 percent of children aged 5-17 are fully vaccinated. Children under 5 are not eligible.
Asked about concerns that visitors from other places, particularly those with lower vaccination rates, could spread the virus, Mr. Adams said he was not worried: “We want tourism back. It’s a major economic boost for us.”
While many New Yorkers rejoiced the removal of restrictions, some health professionals and elected officials claimed that Adams was moving too quickly. They questioned Adams’ decision not to remove vaccination rules, even though masks were being taken off.
Dr. Stephen Morse from Columbia University Medical Center is a professor in epidemiology. He said that he would be more at ease waiting another month.
“We have been fooled too many times, and I would like to wait longer, at least until more of the world is immunized, or we have a good sense of where these variants are headed, because we absolutely do not know what the next variant is going to look like,” he said.
The city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, said it was “unnecessary and unwise” to remove the proof-of-vaccination so quickly. Mark Levine, the Manhattan borough president, said he was worried that “people are really just going to let their guard down.”
Some business leaders expressed appreciation for the ease of restrictions. Randy Peers, president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, said he hoped that ending the requirement to show proof of vaccination to dine indoors, a program known as the “Key to N.Y.C.,” would “accelerate the city’s unsteady economic recovery.”
“We look forward to working with the Adams administration and city leaders to wind down more COVID-19 restrictions in the near future and help the city’s economy get back to business in full gear soon,” he said.
Adams will continue to enforce other vaccine mandates, including one for teachers and police officers in municipal areas, and one for employees of private companies who work in the field. He indicated that he would eliminate other pandemic precautions over the coming months.
Masks are still required at many places, including the subway and Broadway theaters. Individual businesses can also require masks if they wish.
The mayor’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, implemented some of the most aggressive pandemic policies in the nation and referred to each new step as “climbing the ladder” toward stricter measures. Now Mr. Adams, a fellow Democrat and a political ally of Mr. de Blasio’s, views his role as “peeling back” those steps layer by layer as the number of cases declines.
Jay Varma is a top health advisor to Mr. de Blasio and urged Mr. Adams to keep the mandate for private employer vaccinations in place. The mandate was introduced in December. It requires anyone in New York City to show proof that they have had two doses.
“If the ‘Key to N.Y.C.’ is going to be eliminated, I feel strongly that the city should keep the employer mandate, because we need to maintain high levels of adult vaccination and we know that employer mandates work,” Mr. Varma said.
One question surrounding the mandates is Kyrie Irving’s future. Kyrie is the star guard for Brooklyn Nets and is not vaccinated so he cannot play at home games at Barclays Center. The mayor’s office said that he fell under the private employer mandate, and that the rollbacks would not affect him.
Mr. Adams stated on Monday that he wants Mr. Irving playing, but that he wouldn’t feel right making an exception.
“It would send the wrong message just to have an exception for one player when we’re telling countless number of New York City employees, ‘If you don’t follow the rules, you won’t be able to be employed,’” Mr. Adams said on CNBC.
Principals and teachers represented by union leaders welcomed the lifting of school mask mandates. Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers’ union, said he was hopeful that cases would remain low this week as students return from midwinter break.
“We have very strong opinions on both sides of this debate,” he said of his members. “But the majority of people want to make sure — if the numbers are there, let’s move forward.”
Mark Cannizzaro, the head of the principals’ union, said he told Mr. Adams in a recent phone call that he supported removing the mask mandate if the mayor and his advisers agreed.
“We think that the students, especially the young ones, will benefit from not having to wear masks,” he said.
After reviewing the latest health data, Mr. Adams said that he would make a decision on Friday about the mandates. Each morning, the mayor conducts a video call to review case details with his health team, which includes Dr. Dave Chokshi who is his outgoing health commissar, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, his incoming chief of health, and school leaders. Adams said that these advisers had encouraged his to keep vaccine mandates for workers.
Restaurant owners indicated that they are ready to adapt to the new rules. Martin Whalen, an owner of a dozen bars and restaurants, including the Irish pub Stout NYC in Manhattan, said he planned to follow the mayor’s guidance and lift the vaccine mandate in his establishments because cases were falling.
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“If the numbers go back up and we have to put a mandate back, I’m not going to be angry,” he said. “You have to go with the science.”
Eric Sze, a co-owner of 886, a Taiwanese restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, said he would let his staff members decide in the coming days whether they wanted to stop checking vaccine cards.
“I want to make sure everyone working with us feels comfortable,” he said.
Mr. Sze expressed conflicting feelings about the mandate, noting the ease of forging paper vaccine cards. He said that the mandate had no impact on his business.
“We’ve had no problems,” he said. “Now it’s become second nature for people to show their vaccine cards.”
Some experts believe it is premature to lift school mask mandates. Dr. Oni Blackstock, a New York City physician who founded a racial- and health equity consulting firm, expressed concern about disparities in vaccination rates between districts and reports that vaccines are less effective in children younger than them.
“We need to use all the tools we have to keep children safe, including when they are at schools,” she said.
Others supported the decision. Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said it was time to “move forward with caution.”
“I feel that this moment is as good as any, in terms of the high rates of vaccination we have, in terms of the high rates of infection we have had already, and hopefully we will continue to see the low rate of hospitalizations,” she said.
However, she felt that not enough attention was being paid for protecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers. This included young children and immuno-suppressed people.
Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes, dean of the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health, said that “now is as good a time as any” to lift mask mandates. However, he was skeptical about removing vaccine requirements at the same moment.
He encouraged leaders in New York to be prepared for the possibility of restrictions being reinstituted if circumstances change.
“People should continue to use good sense and assume the pandemic isn’t over,” he said.
Teachers and students still have the option to wear masks at school. Businesses can still ask for proof of vaccination. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some businesses want to voluntarily keep it in place,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
Jake Dell, the owner of Katz’s Deli on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said he would “probably” stop requiring vaccines to enter, but could shift course depending on the customer response.
Some customers felt more comfortable dining at Katz’s with the mandate in place, he said, but it has been especially challenging to enforce with some out-of-town diners.
Mr. Dell said he hoped that declining hospitalizations would “lead to more active tourism more influx of people coming into the city in general.”
“Look, I just make sandwiches,” he said. “We don’t play politics. Part of being in this city is following the rules, however they evolve.”
Joseph Goldstein and Grace AshfordContributed reporting
Source: NY Times