New York City, one of the nation’s first epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic, is on the cusp of stepping into the next hopeful chapter of this crisis, and Mayor Eric Adams is leading the way. On Sunday, Mr. Adams announced that he would eliminate school mask mandates and vaccine requirements for restaurants, gyms and movie theaters by next Monday, as long as case numbers remain low.
As with so many pandemic policies, these moves are likely to please as many people as they infuriate. But with full vaccination rates in the city at 78 percent and the latest surge clearly passed, this is the right time to lift the requirement for masks in schools. It’s a lot to ask young children to wear masks for several hours a day, especially when so many adults seem to struggle with it.
The vaccine requirements, which have been a cornerstone of business reopenings in so much of the city, are harder to justify parting with. They have added an extra layer of protection to indoor activities, which are inherently riskier; they have not been burdensome, and have probably nudged many reluctant people, including tourists, to get vaccinated. More important, requiring vaccines in these settings helps protect vulnerable groups who may feel unsafe dining out or going to the theater, and essential workers, who have no choice but to interact with the public.
Nonetheless, it is unlikely that New Yorkers will live with such checks forever, and if the caseloads remain low, now is as good a time as any to test the waters. By doing so, New York can be a model and set an example for other cities and states that are ready to lift Covid-19 restrictions, in a spirit of optimism and care.
To win more support for lifting these restrictions, the mayor can take steps to demonstrate his commitment to ensuring the safety of vulnerable groups, including the elderly and immunocompromised, and make clear that he is using this lull to prepare the city for potential future surges.
He can make sure that vaccinations and mobile testing sites continue to be widely available, with a clear focus on the elderly and those who live in nursing homes and other group settings. High-quality masks should also be easily available, and those who face a higher risk of infection and illness should be strongly encouraged to use them, including in schools, especially those where vaccination rates are alarmingly low. And Mr. Adams could work more aggressively to update ventilation systems in schools and other city-owned buildings. The federal government has allocated billions of dollars in Covid relief funds to public schools, which they can use to improve HVAC systems. The mayor should urge schools to make use of those funds quickly.
Once the Covid-19 vaccines win full F.D.A. approval (as opposed to emergency authorization) for younger children, city and state officials should make the shots mandatory for all public school students, just as they already do for measles, mumps, rubella and a host of other once-devastating diseases.
In the meantime, Mr. Adams can also make clear to New Yorkers that even as the city lifts restrictions, it has a plan to handle any future surges. The past two years have taught us that there is no foolproof metric for when to impose which safety measures, or when to lift them. Our technology advances, the virus evolves, and public willingness to change behavior shifts over time. But if a new variant of concern emerges or the virus surges again (or both), mask and vaccine passports will have to return. The mayor and health officials everywhere should articulate what the threshold for reversing course will be: Will it be based on hospitalization rates, or rising test-positivity ratios, or analysis of wastewater data? Will it include a subjective assessment of the public’s willingness to support and comply with rules or of disease burden across communities? By making this clear now, the city can avoid unnecessary confusion and dismay later.
This virus is not going away anytime soon, as so many experts have warned. But New York is no longer in the acute phase of this crisis. We have vaccines, the promise of new medications, hard-won expertise in treating Covid-19 and a strong baseline of immunity in the population. There will never be a perfect moment to step into the next chapter of this pandemic. But at some point, we have to try moving forward. There are smart ways to do that right now, and the mayor is wise to embrace them.
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