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NYC to lift school mask rules, vaccine mandates for dining

New York City mayor Eric Adams speaks during a news conference in which he announced the scaling back of COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates within the city, Friday, March 4, 2022, in New York. (New York City Mayor's Office via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City, which has long prided itself as having the nation’s toughest COVID-19 safety protocols, will do away with several of them next week, including mandatory masking in public schools and vaccination requirements at restaurants, entertainment and cultural venues, the mayor announced Friday.

Standing in Times Square, Mayor Eric Adams said that while the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, he was confident that it is now safe to send children and teachers to school unmasked, starting Monday.

“We’re far from out of the woods. COVID is still here. But we are beating it back,” Adams said Friday. He said it was time for New Yorkers to “celebrate” and implored them to “go out this weekend and go dine.”

Individual businesses can still decide to keep mandates in place if they choose, but as of Monday the city will no longer require they check guests’ vaccine cards.

New York City’s decision to lift some of its strictest mandates comes as government officials around the U.S. have been easing COVID-19 guidelines and signaling that the risk of virus spread is retreating — at least for now.

As of Friday, Los Angeles County residents were no longer required to wear masks at restaurants, bars, gyms, shops and other businesses, though the city of Los Angeles is still requiring many indoor businesses to verify that their patrons are fully vaccinated.

Illinois lifted face mask requirements for many indoor spaces on Monday. Chicago stopped requiring proof of vaccination to dine in restaurants.

Adams, a Democrat, stressed that New York City’s mandates could be re-imposed if a new variant emerges that, like omicron, poses a special danger.

To react to a rise or a future variant, New York City announced Friday it would start using a color-coded alert system, similar to the terrorist threat advisory system the U.S. government introduced after the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said late last month that most Americans can now safely take a break from wearing masks, including students.

Adams said parents could continue to send their kids to school with face coverings if they wished but said, “We want to see the faces of our children. We want to see their smiles.”

The move to drop mandatory masking in New York City schools has the support of the teacher’s union.

“Our doctors agree with the city’s medical experts that this is the right time to safely move from a mask mandate to an optional mask system,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement following Adams’ announcement.

Adams, who took office earlier this year, has said the virus cannot control people’s lives and the city needs to get back to normal. The school mask mandate and Key2NYC vaccination rules were both imposed by his predecessor, Bill de Blasio.

The elimination of the school mask requirement is a striking turnaround from just a few months ago, when some parents and teachers were agitating for a return to remote learning as the omicron wave swept through schools and attendance plummeted.

More than 137,500 public school students and 40,300 teachers have gotten the virus since the start of the school year.

Children under age 5 would still have to wear masks because they are not eligible for the vaccine, under city rules.

The Key2NYC program 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, go to a convention or visit a museum.

Not all of those places are ready to drop the restrictions. The Broadway League has said it will maintain mask and vaccination requirements in all its theaters at least through April 30.

Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance representing restaurants, bars and nightclubs, said Friday that he thinks few venues will continue to impose vaccine rules on their own because their staff had to enforce the rules with customers and, at times, weather their frustrations.

“Regardless of what someone’s opinion is of the vaccination requirement, it’s put restaurant workers in an extraordinarily difficult position,” he said. “We hoped that people would respect workers but it’s been really tough.”

The rules also barred star Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving from playing home games with the team. But Adams said that he plans to preserve a rule requiring private employers to ensure their workers are vaccinated, which would apply to Irving.

By lifting the Key2NYC rule, Irving would be allowed to attend the Nets’ home games as a spectator but not play.

Recently, New York City has been averaging just under 680 new coronavirus cases and 25 deaths each day, down from nearly 41,000 new cases and nearly 130 deaths per day at the height of the omicron wave in January.

The virus continues to hospitalize and kill New Yorkers with greater frequency now than it did last summer and through much of the fall, when many of the vaccination and school masking rules were imposed.

Around 4,000 city residents have died of the virus since Jan. 1, more than in the previous nine months combined.