NEW YORK (AP) – New York City and Los Angeles are lifting some of their most stringent COVID-19 preventative measures as officials in major cities around the United States are pushing to return to normalcy after two exhausting years of the pandemic.
New York City, which has long been proud to have the country’s toughest COVID-19 security protocols, will do away with several of its mandates next week, including required masking in public schools and vaccination requirements at restaurants, entertainment and cultural venues, the mayor said. announced Friday.
Across the country, Los Angeles County residents were no longer required to wear masks at restaurants, bars, gyms, shops and other businesses from Friday, though the city of Los Angeles still requires many indoor businesses to confirm that their patrons are fully vaccinated.
The measures to ease the mandates come as government officials around the United States have eased the COVID-19 guidelines and signaled that the risk of virus spread is receding – at least for now.
Illinois lifted face mask requirements for many indoor spaces on Monday, and Boston lifted similar rules on Saturday. Chicago stopped requiring proof of vaccination to eat at restaurants. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that most Americans can now safely take a break from wearing masks, including students.
New York Mayor Eric Adams said it was time to “celebrate” when he stood in Times Square on Friday, saying the city should recover and that “we will not allow COVID to define us.”
“We are far from out of the woods. COVID is still here. But we are fighting it back,” Adams said.
He invited “people from Canada, from Arkansas, from New Zealand, from anywhere else,” to visit and spend money, and begged New Yorkers to “go out for the weekend and have dinner.”
The Democratic mayor said he was convinced it would be safe, from Monday, to send children and teachers unmasked to school and no longer require some companies to check guests’ vaccine cards.
The decision to relax the rules in Los Angeles County is in line with the new California guidelines that were unveiled, which allow vaccinated or unvaccinated people to choose to go without a face mask in most places.
Masks are still required in all K-12 school districts until March 12th. Then the districts can maintain their own mask requirements. Business owners can also choose to demand masks for customers and employees.
At Coffee Fix in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, owner Tae Kim said the change in masking rules has been a bit confusing for customers.
A customer Taylor Lewis, who wore her mask, said it was “so nice to see people’s faces”, but she would continue to wear her mask out of habit indoors.
“With the ever-changing facts given to us, I see the good in carrying it,” she said.
In New York City, the abolition of the school mask requirement is a striking turn from just a few months ago, when some parents and teachers agitated for a return to distance learning as the omicron wave swept through schools and attendance plummeted. The teachers’ union said Friday it supports the move to repeal the rule.
Children under the age of 5 must still wear masks because they are not eligible for the vaccine.
The city’s vaccine mandate, imposed last year on a program called Key2NYC, required New Yorkers and tourists to show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants and bars, work out in gyms, catch a movie, attend a Broadway show, take to a convention or visit a museum.
Not all of these sites are ready to drop the restrictions. The Broadway League has said it will maintain mask and vaccination requirements in all its cinemas at least until April 30.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurants, bars and nightclubs, said Friday that he believes few venues will continue to impose vaccination rules on their own because their staff had to enforce the rules towards customers and at times, cope with their frustrations.
“Whatever anyone thinks about the vaccination requirement, it has put restaurant workers in an extraordinarily difficult situation,” he said. “We were hoping people would respect workers, but it’s been really tough.”
The rules also prevented star Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving from playing home games with the team. But Adams said he plans to maintain a rule that obliges private employers to ensure their workers are vaccinated, which would apply to Irving.
By repealing the Key2NYC rule, Irving would be allowed to participate in the Nets’ home games as a spectator, but not play.
Recently, New York City averaged just under 680 new coronavirus cases and 25 deaths each day, down from nearly 41,000 new cases and nearly 130 deaths a day at the height of the omicron wave in January.
The virus continues to infiltrate and kill New Yorkers with greater frequency now than it did last summer and through most of the fall, when many of the rules on vaccination and school masking were imposed.
About 4,000 city dwellers have died from the virus since January 1, more than in the previous nine months combined.
Not everyone agreed with the move.
City Attorney Jumaane Williams, who served as an elected ombudsman, called it “unnecessary and unwise” to remove the vaccine requirement while repealing other rules and people who should feel safe.
Adams, who responded to critics on Friday, said “there is no decision you can make in New York that you will get 100% of New Yorkers” to agree with.
He said some people may be reluctant to eat out without vaccine rules, but said he thinks most New Yorkers are ready.
“We’re fine, people,” Adams said. “We do the right things.”