Over a year after New York State mandated masks for all residents, vaccinated New Yorkers were able to uncover their faces on Wednesday as the Empire State joined several other states in getting back to normal.
However, confusion lingers about who doesn’t have to wear a mask and whether or not businesses have the right to keep mask mandates to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Last Friday, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention and President Joe Biden announced that Americans who have been vaccinated no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors. Masks still have to be worn on public transit including buses, trains and planes, and in hospitals, homeless shelters and prisons.
Only 43% of the nation is fully vaccinated and 52% of Americans have received their first vaccine.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities—large or small—without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
Several states and municipalities had already eliminated mask mandates but some states, including New York and New Jersey, weren’t so quick to tell people to stop wearing them. Several retail companies also eliminated the requirement for customers to wear masks in their establishments. The mandates, however, remained in place in states that still required masks.
This week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that 10 million New York State residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. He lifted the mask mandate and social distancing rules on Wednesday for vaccinated New Yorkers for indoors and outdoors specifying Pre-K to 12 schools and the subway as on the CDC’s list where masks will still be required.
Cuomo originally signed an executive order on April 15, 2020 requiring masks and face coverings be worn by all state residents.
“By the CDC guidance, immunocompromised people and vaccinated people should continue to wear a mask and social distance, but if you are vaccinated, you are safe. No masks, no social distancing,” Cuomo said. “Getting back to life means not just getting back to work, but getting back to life the way we enjoy it in New York.”
In the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday that 7.6 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered throughout the five boroughs. He said the city will follow the state’s mask mandate but special care should be taken in health care facilities, schools, congregate settings, and mass transit. Some businesses may still require masks.
“I think a lot of different institutions will make their own decisions on what makes sense,” de Blasio said. “ We’re going to watch the data. We are seeing great information now, all directly correlated to the level of vaccination. We want people to keep getting vaccinated.”
But what about the unvaccinated? Those who are have not gotten the COVID-19 vaccine are still required to wear masks and social distance. While the CDC, city and state have lifted masks mandates, they are relying on an honor for those who have not been vaccinated.
NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene First Deputy Commissioner/Chief Equity Officer Dr. Torian Easterling said people should be mindful of unvaccinated people.
“If you are walking outside and you’re by yourself, you don’t have to wear your mask if you’re fully vaccinated,” he said. “But the moment you walk into that train, the moment you walk into that supermarket and you see that it’s crowded, you need to have your mask armed and ready so that we can make sure we move forward and end this dangerous virus.”
Many health experts feel the CDC’s change to the mask mandate came too soon. Dr. Kitaw Demissie of the Downstate Health Sciences University School of Public Health said he believes the mandate was lifted too soon because of the high infection rate and low vaccination rates in some areas of the city.
“The rate of infection is low in New York now but if you look at the rate of vaccination, overall, it is close to 50%,” he said. “There are areas like Manhattan with a higher rate of vaccination but then there’s the Bronx and Queens, where most minority residents live, where the rate of vaccination is low. I think it’s too early in my opinion.”