Coronavirus-related infections, hospitalizations and deaths were plummeting, the rationale went, and the public is tiring of pandemic rules.
But in New York City — long the pandemic's epicenter, which has boasted of having some of the nation’s strictest rules for the pandemic — Mayor Eric Adams said Feb. 10 he would be indefinitely retaining a sweeping part of Key2NYC, the municipal mandate imposed by his predecessor, Bill de Blasio: that patrons of restaurants, bars, theaters and other venues must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
Less than two weeks later, Adams abruptly changed course — signaling that the rule was going away, and on Friday he officially announced it would be gone starting Monday. Also ending: a masking rule for most in the public schools.
"There’s no decision you can make in New York that you're going to get 100% of New Yorkers — 8.8 million people, 30 million opinions. We are going to open. People are going to get back in restaurants. They're going to go back to their normal lives. It's going to take time for some," Adams said, citing a citywide, seven-day positivity rate of 1.8%. "The overwhelming number of New Yorkers are ready, and we are all right, and I'm so happy today that these numbers show that we are all right."
In the last week, additional jurisdictions have also announced similar plans to drop the proof-of-vaccine mandates, including in Los Angeles and even France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, said in January that mandates are meant to torment the unvaccinated.
In New York City, at least, not all rules mandating vaccines and masks are going away: all workers, regardless of employer, must still be vaccinated as a condition of entering their workplace. Rescinding that requirement is dependent on getting "better and better … with these numbers," Adams said Friday. The mayor said he would not rehire municipal workers the city fired for failure to be vaccinated.
Masking is still required aboard public transit, pursuant to a federal rule. And venues that still want to require proof of vaccination can do so under the law, Adams said Friday. For example, through at least the end of April, Broadway plans to keep mandating that theatergoers prove they’re vaccinated and wear masks inside.
And Adams didn’t rule out reimposing some or all of the rules if indicators rise once again.
"COVID changes and shifts and modifies," Adams said, speaking at a celebratory news conference Friday in Times Square. "And if we see a rise in cases, or hospitalizations, we're going to come back."
To Adams, whose event was just feet from where he was inaugurated Jan. 1 as New York City’s 110th mayor, dropping pandemic rules hastens and heralds a municipal renaissance to draw tourists and "get our economy back on track."
"This is clearly an Arnold Schwarzenegger moment," Adams said. "We'll be back."
The outgoing health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, unveiled a four-stepped alert system to guide future COVID-19-related policymaking, including "low," "medium," "high," and "very high," the last of which signals "red alert."
Sean Clouston, an associate professor and public health researcher at Stony Brook University who studies population health, said the city's purpose for the vaccination mandate at public gathering places — to nudge the vaccination rate higher — has run its course.
He would like to see older people, particularly, those 65 and older — a group at greatest risk from COVID-19 — continue to be incentivized to get vaccinated.
Among that age group in New York City, 88.3% have gotten at least one dose, and 82.5% are fully vaccinated, according to figures from the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
What might the future bring?
"We should be looking at mandating booster use in the fall or when cases start coming up again," Clouston said.
The lifting of the face-mask rule for the public schools does not cover children under 5, because they cannot be vaccinated, Adams said.
Late last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced plans to end the school masking rule on the state level. Adams has followed suit for the city school system, which, with 1.1 million students, is the nation’s largest.
"We want to see the faces of our children. We want to see their smiles. We want to see how happy they are. We want to see when they're feeling sad, so that we can be there to comfort them — and a mask prevented us from doing so for almost two years," he said.
Jumaane Williams, the city’s elected public advocate, doesn’t support the rollback of the proof-of-vaccine mandate, saying in a statement that doing so "sends the wrong message at the wrong time."
"It is unnecessary and unwise to suddenly remove Key2NYC, especially while simultaneously lifting other protections," said Williams, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
"Vaccine requirements are helping New Yorkers both be safe and feel safe as they patronize local businesses, and we should only move forward only in a way that ensures we don’t go backward," he added.
In a letter dated March 2, Williams and the city's comptroller, Brad Lander, asked Adams for "full COVID vaccination for students to return to school next fall."
Asked about the plan, Adams demurred.
"That's part of what's on the discussion block and we'll discuss that with our medical professionals. When it's time to roll that out, we ... [will roll it out]" he said at the Times Square news conference.
Sabrina McCormick, associate professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said she would want to see more people get vaccine boosters before lifting rules, as Adams has. And if school masking and venue proof-of-vaccine rules were going to be lifted, she would have advised against doing so simultaneously. She said she didn’t have any benchmarks that would need to be reached before the mandates should be lifted.
"I think lifting the vaccine mandate and the mask mandate at the same time is going to result in an increase in cases," she said.
Elizabeth Stuart, a professor at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, cautioned: "It may also make some people less likely to dine indoors if they are worried or have immunocompromised family members or children under 5" who can’t get vaccinated.
Asked about such sentiment, Adams said: "Those few that are going to take a while — I understand it, you know. But the overwhelming number of New Yorkers are ready."
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NYC vaccine mandate changes
- The requirement that patrons must show proof of vaccination to enter indoor public businesses such as restaurants and entertainment venues is ending on Monday.
- The school mask mandate for children 5 and older is lifted as well.
- All workers, regardless of employer, must still be vaccinated as a condition of entering their workplace.
- Requirements remain on public transit, pursuant to a federal rule.