NYC ends pandemic mandates despite concerns it’s moving too quickly

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Mayor Eric Adams opened a new chapter in the pandemic in New York on Friday, ending requirements for masks to be worn in public schools and proof of vaccinations to be presented by those who dine indoors, use the gymnasiums and go to places of entertainment.

The mayor announced the moves to Times Square, a symbol of dynamism at a significant time for a city that was once an epicenter of the pandemic and where nearly 40,000 people have died.

Mr Adams framed the decision to drop the mandates as part of his broader effort to reopen the city, whose economy has been battered by the coronavirus, and to restore a sense of normalcy after a sharp drop in cases of Covid-19.

New York, Mr. Adams said, had pushed back the Omicron variant of the virus, in large part by ensuring that millions of people were vaccinated, and that New Yorkers and tourists could once again enjoy the city.

“We are winning,” Mr. Adams said. “Let’s celebrate.”

The mayor’s announcement coincided with Los Angeles County lifting nearly all of its indoor mask and vaccine verification requirements. Masks are no longer required in grocery stores, restaurants, bars and other public places, and customers can enter indoor bars, wineries and most other businesses without proof of vaccination or negative virus test results .

California state rules still require proof of vaccination or negative test results to participate in large indoor events, and masks must still be worn on public transportation and in other high-risk environments , including hospitals. The City of Los Angeles will still, for now, require bars, restaurants and many other covered businesses to verify vaccination status.

In New York, students will no longer have to wear masks inside public schools starting Monday and people will not have to show proof of vaccination to visit restaurants, gyms and places like cinemas. Masks will still be required on public transit, in Broadway theaters and some other places.

Mr. Adams, a Democrat who took office in January, opted to maintain other pandemic-related restrictions, including a vaccination mandate for employees of private companies who have returned to work in person. Municipal workers should also always be vaccinated; about 1,400 who refused, less than 1% of the city’s workforce, were laid off.

Other major cities are also preparing to end certain mandates. Dallas and Houston have made masks optional in schools, and Chicago is should do it soon. Schools in Boston, Washington and Seattle continue to require mask-wearing, although officials in most of those cities have ended vaccination requirements for entering businesses.

Some business leaders in New York have welcomed the end of the vaccine requirement and hope it will help restaurants and other businesses rebound after two tough years. It will now be up to individual businesses to decide whether to continue asking for proof of vaccination, a requirement that has helped some workers and customers feel comfortable.

Some elected officials, including Brooklyn City Council member Chi Ossé, are encouraging restaurants to continue requiring vaccinations.

Virus cases have fallen sharply over the past month after a surge caused by Omicron. The city is now seeing around 500 cases and 25 hospitalizations a day, up from more than 40,000 cases and 1,000 hospitalizations a day in January.

Still, some health experts have raised concerns that Mr Adams is moving too quickly to drop pandemic restrictions. Critics say the requirement for proof of vaccinations, known as the Key to NYC program, has helped keep New Yorkers safe, especially given the number of international visitors the city receives, and that Vaccination rates vary widely from school to school, which could make some students and employees more vulnerable to infection.

Dr. Jay Varma, a top health adviser to Mr. Adams’ predecessor, Bill de Blasio, urged Mr. Adams in an opinion piece in the New York Daily News Thursday to keep the vaccination proof policy in place for restaurants.

Other elected officials, including Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, and Liz Krueger, a state senator from Manhattan, have also expressed concern about the policies being dropped.

“As we have seen time and time again during the pandemic, when we let our guard down too soon, it only prolongs the crisis,” Mrs Krueger said.

Mr. Adams said the proof-of-vaccination program had worked by encouraging more New Yorkers to get vaccinated and that he would reinstate restrictions if cases were to soar again.

Nearly 87% of New York adults are fully immunized, according to city data. Rates are lower in children: only about 56% of 5 to 17 year olds are fully vaccinated.

Adrienne Adams, the city council president, said New Yorkers have reason to be optimistic. She added, however, that she wants the city to start focusing on addressing the health disparities the pandemic has helped expose, including declining vaccination rates among people of color.

Ms Adams, who is not related to the mayor, cited city data showing black New Yorkers had been hospitalized with Covid-19 at more than double the rate of their white counterparts during the recent Omicron wave.

Ms. Adams said in a statement that the city should “continue a focused and persistent effort to vaccinate New Yorkers” and maintain widespread testing in communities with low vaccination rates.

Also on Friday, the mayor announced a new color coded alert system to let New Yorkers know when the risk of being exposed to the virus is increasing. The current city level is green, or “low community spread.” Red represents extremely high community spread. Officials will consider reactivating Key to NYC requirements if the city reaches the yellow or medium tier.

Mr Adams said he wants children under 5 to continue wearing masks in classrooms as they are not yet eligible to be vaccinated and he is concerned about hospitalization rates for younger children children. Some parents are frustrated that young children are not yet allowed to ditch the masks.

“I know some people are worried,” Mr Adams said of continuing to require children under 5 to wear masks. “I’d rather people complain about me than lose my babies in our town.”

In early January, older New Yorkers, especially those over 75, had the highest hospitalization rates for Covid-19. Children under the age of 5 had the highest hospitalization rate among children, although it was relatively low at about 67 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.

As for the next school year, Adams said he would consider requiring all public school students to be vaccinated to attend school in the fall. Mr. Williams, the public attorney, and City Comptroller, Brad Lander, both called on Mr Adams to demand the Covid-19 vaccination next school year.

Mr Adams has said in the past that it would be reasonable for schools to require the Covid-19 vaccine since they already need other vaccines.

“That’s part of what’s on the talking block,” the mayor said Friday.

Leaders of unions that represent teachers and principals have backed the decision to get rid of masks in schools.

“This is the responsible and thoughtful way to make our next transition,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers‘ union, said on Friday. He added that schools would continue to test students for the virus to ensure cases remained low.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Lander sent a joint letter to the mayor on Thursday urging him to prepare for the emergence of another variant of the virus later this year. They asked the city to provide high-quality masks to schools and create fully masked classrooms for teachers and students with compromised immune systems or who live with someone with compromised immunity.

“We have many immunocompromised and vulnerable New Yorkers among us,” the letter said. “A compassionate city owes them the opportunity to live a full and safe life.”

Jill Cowan contributed reporting.

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