The end of COVID protocols in New York City is starting to feel like an episode of “Too Many Cooks.” Federal officials, state regulators and the mayor have all issued new guidance in recent days for masks and vaccines. Some of the new protocols complement each other — but they also leave residents and businesses with a dizzying array of exceptions to navigate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its advice on Friday for mask wearing indoors — setting up on- and off-ramps based on a county’s rates of cases and hospitalizations. If you live in what’s now described as an area at “low risk for severe disease,” then the feds said you can put away those masks. Live in a medium-risk locale? Then you can drop the masks, too, unless you have a pre-existing condition or are immunocompromised. In those instances, officials said to consult with a doctor before freeing the face. And the CDC also said folks in high-risk areas should keep universal masking for indoor spaces.
All of that was straightforward, and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul used the opportunity to expedite the removal of the mask mandate for schools. The policy had already been due for reconsideration this Friday.
But potentially making matters more confusing, the guidance said parents could only discard those face coverings for kids if their county officials also decided to do away with masks for schools. And under the new CDC guidelines, one of every six counties in New York is still deemed "high risk" and should push for masks indoors at schools and elsewhere.
Overlapping rulings from different sectors also made matters murky for residents in New York City.
Statistics showed that every downstate county is considered "low risk" by the CDC, meaning those mask mandates are ready to fall. And on Sunday, Mayor Eric Adams said he agreed with that assessment and took the first steps to remove the face covering policy for city schools by next week. But the mayor also opted to shift the city’s vaccine rules.
The extra pivot added another layer of changes to a rapidly evolving situation, and also created a weird limbo for every employee working in the city.
That guidance said that, starting next Monday, all jobholders in the five boroughs would still be required to be fully vaccinated to go to work, but visitors to those places — such as restaurant customers or sports fans — would not. Adams confirmed as much during a handful of appearances this week.
“When we talk about the employee mandates, it is imperative for the businesses to continue to create a safe environment for their employees,” Adams said at a press conference Monday afternoon, citing conversations he had with his health advisers. “It would send a mixed message if we lifted in one area, and we don't do the same thing with city employees.”
His decision also came at a time when the vaccine rollout has largely stalled, both in the city and nationwide — raising the question of whether a public mandate is still motivating people to get shots.
To break down the purgatory of mandates, Gothamist has put together an explainer centered on the Brooklyn Nets — whose situation weirdly encapsulates all of the confusion.
Why can't Kyrie Irving play in home games?
Brooklyn Nets star point guard Kyrie Irving might offer the easiest way to explain this conundrum. He isn’t vaccinated, due to his personal beliefs, so he still can’t play home games in the city. But Nets fans can soon attend home games without masks and without vaccination. Out-of-town players and fans could do the same. Irving could also technically sit maskless in the stands at home games that he can't play in.
On Monday, Adams was asked on CNBC’s "Squawk on the Street" about the obvious contradictions surrounding Irving and unvaccinated players on away teams.
“It makes no sense, and I don’t know who thought of putting such a ridiculous rule in place,” he said.
The answer is former Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the reasons centered upon two pivotal moments in his mandate legacy.
Irving could technically sit maskless in the stands at home games that he can't play in.
Back in mid-August, de Blasio signed the Key to NYC executive order, creating the so-called “vaccine passport,” which called upon employees and patrons of entertainment venues, gyms, restaurants, museums and a bunch of businesses where crowds mingle to require at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine for entry. The August rule also allowed out-of-towners, entertainers and professional athletes to work indoors while barring city regulars like Irving from doing likewise.
The move was part of de Blasio’s “climbing the ladder” strategy for gradually escalating mandates over time rather than just dumping them out all at once. By the time Key to NYC arrived, he had already called for municipal employees to submit weekly testing or get the shots — a policy that would ultimately get rid of the test option by late October.
The second turning point came at the end of 2021, in de Blasio’s final weeks as mayor when he and his health officials decided to change the protocols for workers in two ways. On Dec. 27, he and his health department officially expanded the vaccine mandate to apply to all private businesses and their employees, and the decision called for these workers to eventually show proof that they had received a full course of inoculation. That meant either one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of Pfizer or Moderna.
It was that second order that would keep Irving from playing home games.
Even though Adams said he was moving to end the Key to NYC order, which would eliminate the vaccine mandate for restaurant goers or attendees of sporting events, employees are still required to be vaccinated.
When can Irving play?
This answer is unclear, but it may depend on when the city officials finish their legal battles over mandates for municipal employees. In mid-February, the city fired 1,400 workers who had been on unpaid leave for months rather than submitting to the vaccine mandates. But at the time, thousands more still had their requests for vaccine exemptions under review.
During an interview on Monday, Adams hinted at the idea that removing the vaccine requirement for private employees could be unfair for city workers.
Gothamist contacted the city’s legal and health departments to ask if the decision to rollback the Key to NYC requirement but keep the private employee mandate had anything to do with ongoing legal deliberations with municipal employees. The Health Department referred Gothamist to the mayor’s office, which did not return a comment by publication time.
The mayor did, however, say he wants Irving to play at the Barclays Center as the playoffs loom.
“Listen, I want Kyrie on the court,” he told CNBC’s "Squawk on the Street" on Monday. “I would do anything to get that ring. So badly, I want it. But there’s so much at stake here.”
Will I have to wear a mask when I am at the Barclays Center?
New York state officials dropped the mask-or-vaccine requirement for most indoor businesses on Feb. 10, and the city hasn’t had a universal mask mandate in any indoor setting — outside of schools and health care settings — since last summer.
Mask requirements now are fully decided by New York business owners. The Barclays Center recommends masks, like many other establishments, but doesn’t require them. So if Barclays decides to follow the city’s lead this week, upcoming games will likely feature unvaccinated and vaccinated people mingling without masks. That’d apply to any other business with a similar policy.
Business owners could obviously keep their mask and vaccine requirements in place — though without government backing, they would be on their own in terms of enforcement.
Does NYC still need vaccine mandates?
The answer depends on whom you ask.
When CDC Director Rochelle Walensky updated the mask guidance on Friday to create "low risk" zones, she said part of justification was due to places now being able to keep the coronavirus in check with vaccines.
“Regardless of level, we continue to recommend that people stay up to date on vaccines and get tested,” Walensky said.
So why did Adams roll back vaccine requirements for some? On Monday, he said he wanted the easing of restrictions to serve as an incentive for people to patronize businesses again.
Subway ridership levels still have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels and the city’s economy has also been slow to recover. And some officials have said that removing a boundary to enter these places might entice some people to go out and make them worry less.
When asked Monday afternoon if his health team was worried about unvaccinated tourists carrying the virus into the city, Adams said they hadn’t expressed such a concern.
“We want tourism back. Tourism is a major economic boost for us. We want our tourists back in this city,” Adams said while adding that domestic and international rules for travel could help curb this type of coronavirus transmission.
The counter-argument is that COVID still poses a risk to older people and the immunocompromised, even if they’re vaccinated because their immune systems just aren’t as robust as others.
One should also consider the unvaccinated or under-vaccinated. In New York City, nearly 2 million people still aren’t fully vaccinated, including half a million children and 225,000 senior citizens, according to the city Health Department. That lack of coverage is despite the city excelling in its vaccine rollout and the five boroughs having among the highest inoculation rates in the state.
But on the other hand, the vaccine drive has hit a ceiling citywide. On Nov. 24, the day the world learned about the infamous Omicron variant, the city’s full vaccination rate was 69.8%. As of this week, it had only risen to 76.9% — meaning despite the biggest case surge the city has ever seen, a quarter of New Yorkers still don’t have all of their shots.
If another variant or surge were to arrive, the current vaccination and booster rates may not be enough to keep people out of hospital. But that would also be true right now, even with the mandates intact.
Will Kevin Durant be healthy enough to return?
Only time will tell.