Mayor Eric Adams announced on Sunday that New York City was poised to eliminate school mask mandates and vaccine requirements for restaurants, gyms and movie theaters, by March 7, if case numbers remain low.
The rollbacks of virus restrictions, which had served as a crucial weapon in the city’s battle against the coronavirus, are a milestone that many hope will help restore some of the city’s vibrancy and boost its economic recovery.
Mr. Adams has said for weeks that he is eager to remove virus-related restrictions across the city, including mask mandates in schools. In a statement on Sunday, he promised a final decision by Friday, saying: “I want to thank the millions of New Yorkers who have gotten vaccinated to help stop the spread. New Yorkers stepped up and helped us save lives by reaching unprecedented levels of vaccination.”
The mayor said he wanted to give business owners time to adapt — a nod to the toll that the virus and related restrictions have taken on small businesses. Both Mr. Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul have made restoring New York City and its economy a priority.
The announcement came hours after Ms. Hochul said the statewide mask mandate for schools would be lifted, empowering local officials to assess the need for additional restrictions in their schools. Vaccine mandates in New York City for municipal workers and private employers remain in effect.
“My friends, the day has come,” Ms. Hochul said, reiterating that the decision, which is set to take effect on Wednesday, came in consultation with public health and education officials.
In making her announcement, Ms. Hochul said that the mask mandate had been a vital aid in battling the Omicron surge. “When I look back at what was going on just a short time ago, I am so happy that we did have a mask requirement in place for schools at the time,” she said. “That’s how we kept these numbers from getting even worse.”
The state’s decision does not supersede those of individual districts and counties like New York City, which can still impose mask mandates and other restrictive measures.
The rollbacks came a day after New York announced a statewide seven-day average positivity rate below 2 percent and hospitalizations under 2,000 for the first time since before the Omicron surge. The drop is part of a national decrease in coronavirus cases. Across the state, hospitals that were forced to limit elective procedures as a result of the virus have been approved to resume normal operations.
The vaccine mandate for indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms, known as the Key to NYC program, was implemented by Mr. Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, as an essential strategy to encourage New Yorkers to get vaccinated and to reduce the spread of the virus. Dr. Jay Varma, a top health adviser to Mr. de Blasio, emphasized on Sunday that the vaccine mandate for all New York City employees who are working in person was still in effect, and he called on the Education Department to make high quality masks available for students who still want to protect themselves.
Mr. Adams has focused on bringing back the city’s economy during his first weeks in office and repeatedly encouraged New Yorkers to return to offices. He has argued that workers should no longer stay home working in their pajamas and that low-wage workers and small businesses depend on people returning to working in person.
The announcement on masks in schools seems poised to end a bitter and divisive chapter in the state’s pandemic history. Schools have increasingly become battlegrounds in a polarized national conversation between teachers, parents, students and politicians over what measures are appropriate to defend against the virus.
Ms. Hochul has been under pressure to roll back the state’s rules on masking in schools since she allowed the mandate for businesses to elapse earlier this month. At the time, the governor promised to revisit the question of masks in schools after students returned from their midwinter break in early March, but found herself under increased pressure after nearby states with Democratic governors, including Connecticut, New Jersey and Delaware, announced plans to lift their mandates.
Then, on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington released new guidance that masks and social distancing were only necessary in areas where infection risk was high, clearing the way for the lifting of many virus prevention measures, including masking in schools.
That announcement came as the agency shifted its strategy in assessing risk from one based on case counts to one that weighs the stress on hospitals by coronavirus patients, as well as new cases per 100,000 people over the previous week. The guidance starkly changes the virus assessment nationwide from one in which 95 percent of counties were considered high risk to one in which most Americans can go about their lives without masking or social distancing.
Sunday’s announcements were expected to be celebrated by many across the state. Kathryn Wilde of the Partnership for New York City, said that the rollbacks were welcome: “The business community is eager to get beyond pandemic conditions and restrictions,” she said.
And Republicans cheered the news on masks in schools. “The unmasking of our school children is a long overdue victory for kids and parents, educators and common sense,” State Senator Rob Ortt, a Republican and the minority leader who has pushed for a rollback of the mandate, said in a statement.
While Ms. Hochul’s decision leaves actual implementation power to the state’s hundreds of school districts, the announcement marks a major moment in New York’s halting efforts to keep its public schools open amid the pandemic. That is especially true in New York City, which first closed its sprawling system of roughly 1,600 schools in March 2020 and has kept strict virus mitigation measures in place since schools began to reopen in September 2020. The city only lifted its outdoor mask mandate for schools this past week.
The United Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in New York City struck a pensive note, with president Michael Mulgrew, saying he would “confer with our own independent doctors, look at the data from take-home test kits and random in-school testing this week, and make sure all of that is taken into account as New York City reviews its own school masking policy.”
And while many support the end of mandates, the shift will almost certainly concern some who believe it is premature. A recent poll from the Siena College Research Institute, found that 58 percent of New York registered voters believed the state should hold off on lifting the mask mandate in schools until reviewing data from early March. That same poll, which was taken two weeks ago, found that 45 percent of respondents disapproved of the state’s rollback of mask mandates in private businesses.