NEW YORK — New York City public school students in grades kindergarten through 12 will no longer have to wear masks in class, Mayor Eric Adams announced Friday.
Adams also said the city will drop vaccine requirements for restaurants, entertainment venues and fitness centers. Both changes will take effect Monday.
The significant changes to longstanding city rules come as the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has ebbed, with daily new case numbers the lowest they've been since before the delta variant wave, in July 2021, according to city data.
Adams framed the vaccination proof rule change as a safe way to revitalize the city economy, and dismissed concerns that vaccinated New Yorkers might think twice before going out to eat at a restaurant where unvaccinated people can now dine.
“The rates are low enough that the mandatory program is no longer needed,” he said. “Those few that it's gonna take a while, I understand it. But the overwhelming number of New Yorkers are ready.”
Restaurants and other businesses formerly covered by the mandate are within their legal rights to continue requiring proof of vaccination for entry, Adams said.
It was not immediately clear how New York City businesses would respond to the end of the mandate. Andrew Rigie, head of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, welcomed the changes as a way to give restaurants and nightlife establishments more business.
In a statement, however, the Broadway League said its current guidance, which includes vaccination proof and masking in the theater, extends through April 30, and will be updated on April 1.
Adams said that positivity rates in schools, at 0.18%, were low enough to allow for the end of the mask mandate, but said that the science did not support ending the mask requirement for students under five years old.
Those students are not yet eligible for vaccination, and face an elevated risk of hospitalization.
“I’d rather have people complaining against me than us losing our babies in our city,” Adams said.
Students who wish to wear masks will be allowed to do so, Adams said.
While city schools will be keeping their random testing regime in place, social distancing will no longer be required in classrooms, cafeterias and other public spaces in schools, the Department of Education announced on Twitter.
“We will pivot if we see a reason to change any policies,” Adams said. “We are going to be unafraid to make those adjustments and changes.”
In a statement, Michael Mulgrew, head of the United Federation of Teachers, said the union supported the end to the mask requirement.
"This is the responsible, thoughtful way to make our next transition," Mulgrew said. "We will, however, keep our testing program in place - both in-school and the take-home tests - to make sure we remain on the right path."
The city also unveiled a new, four-tier alert system to signal risk levels from COVID-19, and corresponding health measures that the city may take. The city is currently at a “low” level risk, according to Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city health commissioner, the bottom tier below medium, high and very high.
The recommended actions for low, according to the city, are to keep the private business vaccination requirement in place and require masking in certain settings.
State rules, following federal guidelines, still require masking in health care settings, including nursing homes, as well as jails and detention centers; congregate care centers; on public transit; and in airports and planes.
Adams said he had no plans to remove vaccine mandates for private sector and city employees. He also said commuters must remain masked while using mass transit.
Chokshi said that the four-tier alert system is tied to certain COVID-19 metrics, but that the changes will not be automatic.
In response to a question from a reporter about why the city is not basing it’s alert system on COVID-19 transmission in other countries, given that the variants have taken time to be detected after arriving in the city, Adams struck a defiant tone.
“This is a celebratory moment. Why aren't we celebrating this?” he said. “We are winning. Let’s celebrate the win.”