This story was reported by Denise Bonilla, Matthew Chayes, Vera Chinese, Keldy Ortiz, Tory N. Parrish, David Reich-Hale and Ken Schachter. It was written by Chayes.
Vaccinated Long Islanders can go unmasked into premises without capacity limitations, except for social distancing, as New York State on Wednesday officially dropped most restrictions meant to halt the coronavirus pandemic.
Now it’s largely up to businesses to impose restrictions — and customers to follow the honor system about unmasking only if vaccinated.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that the state would adopt federal recommendations issued the prior week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors, except in locations such as health facilities. Although certain loosened regulations are supposed to apply only to those who are vaccinated, adherence is largely up to the individual.
The regulations date back more than a year, to when the pandemic first began to sweep through New York and the nation.
"It's great to see people smile. It's great to see someone's face," said Frank Camarano, whose family owns Evolve Fitness in East Meadow, which is still enforcing 6-foot social distancing rules, but is no longer requiring vaccinated gym members to wear a mask. He said the gym has a capacity of 300, and that social distancing at easy to do at the facility.
Camarano added that he sent a note to members telling them to be prepared to show proof of vaccination if they want to go maskless. When the proof is produced, he said, it is then noted on the customer's file in the gym computer.
"They only have to show us once," he said. "We note the account. That's it. So far, it's been very smooth."
Unvaccinated still need masks
Cuomo said that those who have weakened immune systems or who are unvaccinated should continue to wear face masks, which remain mandatory on transit, in nursing homes, jails and prisons, schools and other places.
Chloe Gauthier, 26, of Oceanside, said she’ll continue to wear a mask for a "very long time" but is glad pandemic restrictions are being dropped. "I’m hoping that it’s a good sign," she said.
Ben LoManto, owner of Vespa Italian Kitchen & Bar and Harleys American Grille, both in Farmingdale, said that all his employees would continue to wear masks, even though they're mostly vaccinated. But he’s relying on diners to follow the loosened rule.
"I don't want to offend or insult anybody, so I’ll take it on good faith that if you come in here without a mask, you're telling the truth and you're vaccinated," he said. "I have to expect they're doing the right thing for themselves and for everyone else."
Still, he said, he won't immediately increase the number of tables he has at either restaurant and added that reservations are recommended.
Mark Smith, who owns five restaurants on the East End, including Nick & Toni's in East Hampton, said "employees and customers who are vaccinated [and] want to unmask, can. If people don't want to unmask, we respect that too."
Smith said the biggest challenge is confirming who is vaccinated.
"It's a hard thing to ask your employees to get involved in," Smith said. "We are going to trust our customers, and if they're lying, they're putting your own health at risk."
Some grocers — Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace and Stew Leonard’s — said they would not be requiring their customers to wear masks.
"We think that with the vaccinations … that customers can be responsible and do the right thing and make decisions for themselves," said Carl F. DelPrete, chief executive of Uncle Giuseppe’s, a Melville-based chain of nine grocery stores, including seven on Long Island.
At Stew Leonard’s supermarkets Wednesday morning, almost all customers were still wearing masks, said Stew Leonard Jr., president of the Norwalk, Connecticut-based chain of seven supermarkets, including two on Long Island.
Both Uncle Giuseppe’s and Stew Leonard’s will require their employees to wear masks, at least for the time being.
"We are 100% masks if you work at Stew Leonard’s right now. I told our team members that, ‘Look, our job is we’re handling fresh food, packaging fresh food. I want the customers to feel safe,’" Leonard said.
He would reevaluate the employee-mask requirement after Memorial Day, he said.
King Kullen has not changed its mask policy for customers or employees, said Lloyd Singer, spokesman for Bethpage-based King Kullen Grocery Co., which has 30 King Kullen supermarkets and five Wild by Nature natural food stores.
"King Kullen currently requires that face masks be worn by customers and employees. We are evaluating the situation and following the issue closely," he said.
Joe LaSpina, co-owner of six bowling alleys, including three on Long Island, said his four bowling alleys in New York can, beginning Wednesday, operate at 100% capacity versus 50% previously and that vaccinated people now can go maskless.
He said there was a senior league at the Rockville Centre location this morning and many decided to keep their masks on.
"I think 90% were still wearing their mask," he said. "We’re slowly going back to normal."
He’s still keeping masks on employees, he said: "I don’t know for how long."
Getting used to going maskless
At Shari’s Place, a chain of three women’s clothing boutiques — two on Long Island and one in Florida — almost all of the 20 employees have been fully vaccinated, except for a few pregnant women, said Larry Kaynes, chief executive officer of the Greenvale-based business.
All the employees are wearing masks, he said. "And I guess that’s going to stop. It’s just a matter of time," Kaynes said.
The boutiques are not requiring customers to wear masks, he said.
"But most of our clients are walking in with their masks on," he said Wednesday in the early afternoon.
David Wolmetz, co-founder of Urban Air Lake Grove Adventure Park, said it would follow the state and federal guidelines on mask wearing.
Urban Air will continue to operate at a lower occupancy, he said.
"We are choosing to throttle our occupancy to encourage optimal customer satisfaction and operational efficiency," Wolmetz said. "At reduced capacity, we have been sold out on weekends and have expanded our hours in response to demand."
Urban Air had reopened at 25% capacity in March and recently expanded it, but not near 100%, Wolmetz said.
The mask mandate was no longer in place at a Walmart store in Middle Island after the company announced last week it would stop requiring face coverings at its 5,000 locations nationwide. A handful of customers and employees chose to go maskless although most still opted for face coverings.
Shopper Linda Weissbach of Coram said she will continue to wear a mask as she has not received the COVID-19 vaccine. She believes there is not enough information about the vaccines, which have been granted an emergency authorization but not yet full FDA approval.
In the meantime, she said, she would follow the state guidelines.
"I do what I’m supposed to do," Weissbach said. "I’m following the rules and staying alive."
Massapequa resident Joanne Kranz said she tried to go inside businesses without a mask. "They wouldn’t let me," Kranz, 90, recalled, a mask tucked under her chin. Wearing masks, she said, has been "driving me nuts."
While wearing a face covering is a "nuisance," Kranz said, now that she’s vaccinated, "I’m annoyed they want me to wear it when I don’t want to."
Vanessa Gonzalez, 37, of Hauppauge, said that although she’s fully vaccinated, she plans to still wear a mask when around others.
"As much as it’s a little bit uncomfortable, if I’m going to be around a lot of people and I don’t know if they’re vaccinated, I will still wear my mask," she said. "It’s not only about me, it’s about the person next to me. What if they have a preexisting condition and could die if they get it?"
Gonzalez, who had the virus in December, added of the relaxed rules: "I personally think it’s too early … For all the doctors, the facts, the studies, I don’t think we really know 100% yet what we’re doing."