New York City Is Rolling Back Pandemic Restrictions. Is It Too Soon?

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 appearance on Wall Street on Monday was part of his campaign to restore a sense of normalcy to a city battered by the coronavirus. The end of the mandates, planned for March 7, is part of his approach.

Mr. Adams decided to roll back the restrictions after meeting with his top health advisers and union leaders and watching the number of virus cases and hospitalizations in the city drop steeply.

“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.”

Nearly 77 percent of New York City residents are fully vaccinated, including nearly 87 percent of adults, according to city data. Rates are lower among children; only about 56 percent of those ages 5 to 17 are fully vaccinated, and children under 5 are not yet 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 plenty of New Yorkers celebrated the easing of restrictions, some health experts and elected officials argued that Mr. Adams was moving too quickly. They questioned his decision to remove the vaccination rules while masks were also coming off.

Dr. Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center, said he would feel more comfortable waiting another month or two.

“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 praised the easing 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.

For now, Mr. Adams is keeping other vaccine mandates in place, including one for municipal workers like police officers and teachers and one for all employees of private companies who work in person. He has suggested that he will end other pandemic precautions in the coming months.

Masks are still required in a number of places, including on the subway and at Broadway theaters, and individual businesses are allowed to require masks if they want to.

Several health experts questioned Mr. Adams’s decision to end the “Key to N.Y.C.” program at the same time more and more masks were coming off.Credit…Dieu-Nalio Chéry for The New York Times

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.

Dr. Jay Varma, a top health adviser to Mr. de Blasio, urged Mr. Adams not to abandon the vaccine mandate for private employers, which was introduced in December and requires people in New York City who are working in person to show proof of having received 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 issue that has arisen surrounding the mandates is the future of Kyrie Irving, the star guard for the Brooklyn Nets who is unvaccinated and cannot play 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 said on Monday that he wants Mr. Irving to be able to play, but that he would not feel right making an exception for him.

“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.

Union leaders who represent teachers and principals welcomed the lifting of mask mandates at schools. 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.

Mr. Adams said he would make a final decision about the mandates on Friday after reviewing the latest health data. The mayor holds a video call every morning to review case numbers with his health team, including Dr. Dave Chokshi, his outgoing health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, his incoming health commissioner, and school leaders. Mr. Adams said those advisers had encouraged him to keep vaccine mandates for workers.

Restaurant owners said they were prepared to adjust 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 said he had conflicted feelings about the mandate, noting that the paper vaccine cards were easy to forge. But he said the mandate did not have any impact on business.

“We’ve had no problems,” he said. “Now it’s become second nature for people to show their vaccine cards.”

Some health experts said it was premature to lift mask mandates in schools. Dr. Oni Blackstock, a New York City physician and founder of a racial and health equity consulting practice, said she was concerned about disparities in vaccination rates among districts and reports that vaccines were far less effective in younger children.

“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.

Business leaders praised the lifting of restrictions, saying that they hoped it would help speed the city’s economic recovery.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

But she also felt that not enough attention was being paid to protecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers, including young children and people who are immuno-suppressed.

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. But he was skeptical about lifting vaccine requirements at the same time.

He encouraged leaders to prepare New Yorkers for the possibility that restrictions could be reinstated if circumstances changed.

“People should continue to use good sense and assume the pandemic isn’t over,” he said.

Teachers and students can still choose to wear masks at schools, and businesses can still require 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 and 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 Ashford contributed reporting.

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