NEW YORK (AP) — New York and Los Angeles are lifting some of their toughest COVID-19 prevention measures as officials in major cities across the United States push for a return to normalcy after two grueling years of the pandemic.
New York City, which has long boasted of having the strictest COVID-19 safety protocols in the country, will remove several of its mandates next week, including mandatory masking in public schools and requirements for vaccination in restaurants, entertainment and cultural venues, the mayor announced on Friday.
Across the country, residents of Los Angeles County were no longer required as of Friday to wear masks in restaurants, bars, gyms, stores and other businesses, although the city of Los Angeles still requires that many domestic companies verify that their bosses are fully vaccinated.
The moves to ease the mandates come as U.S. government officials ease COVID-19 guidelines and signal that the risk of the virus spreading is receding — at least for now.
Illinois lifted face mask requirements for many indoor spaces on Monday, and Boston will lift similar rules on Saturday. Chicago has stopped requiring proof of vaccination to dine at restaurants. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that most Americans can now safely take a break from wearing masks, including students.
New York Mayor Eric Adams saying it’s time to “celebrate” as he stood in Times Square on Friday, said the city needed to recover and that “we are not going to allow COVID to define us.”
“We are far from out of the woods. COVID is still here. But we push it back,” said Adams.
He invited “people from Canada, Arkansas, New Zealand, anywhere else,” visit and spend money and implored New Yorkers to “Go out this weekend and go to dinner.”
The Democratic mayor said he was confident it would be safe from Monday to send children and teachers to school without masks and to no longer require some businesses to check customers’ vaccination cards .
The decision to relax the rules in Los Angeles County aligns with newly unveiled California guidelines allowing vaccinated or unvaccinated people to choose to go without face coverings in most places.
Masks are still required in all K-12 school districts until March 12. After that, districts can maintain their own mask requirements. Business owners can also choose to require masks for customers and employees.
At Coffee Fix in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, owner Tae Kim said the change in masking rules has been a bit confusing for customers.
A customer Taylor Lewis, who wore her mask, said it was “so nice to see people’s faces” but she would continue to wear her mask out of habit indoors.
“With the ever-changing facts given to us, I see the good in wearing it,” she says.
In New York, the elimination of the school mask requirement is a stark turnaround from just months ago, when some parents and teachers agitated for a return to remote learning as the surge omicron was sweeping schools and attendance was dropping. The teachers’ union said Friday it supports the decision to lift the rule.
Children under 5 should always wear masks as they are not eligible for the vaccine.
The city’s vaccination mandate, imposed last year in a program called Key2NYC, required New Yorkers and tourists to show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants and bars, work out at gyms, watch a movie, see a Broadway show, go to a convention or visit a museum.
Not all of these places are ready to drop the restrictions. The Broadway League said it would maintain mask and vaccination requirements in all of its theaters until at least April 30.
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance representing restaurants, bars and nightclubs, said Friday he thinks few places will continue to impose vaccine rules on their own because their staff have had to apply the rules with customers and, at times, overcome their frustrations.
“Whatever one’s opinion on the vaccination requirement, it puts restaurant workers in an extraordinarily difficult position,” he added. he said. “We were hoping people would respect the workers, but it’s been really difficult.”
The rules also banned Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving from playing at home with the team. But Adams said he plans to keep 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 Nets home games as a spectator but not play.
Recently, New York City averaged just under 680 new coronavirus cases and 25 deaths per day, compared to 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 vaccination and masking rules school were imposed.
About 4,000 residents of the city have died from the virus since January 1, more than in the previous nine months combined.
Not everyone agreed with the move.
The city’s public attorney, Jumaane Williams, who served as an elected ombudsman, called him “unnecessary and reckless” remove the vaccine requirement while lifting other rules and people had to feel safe.
Adams, responding to criticism on Friday, said “there’s no decision you can make in New York that you’re going to have 100% New Yorkers” to agree with.
He said some people might be reluctant to dine out without vaccine rules, but said he thinks most New Yorkers are ready.
“We’re fine, friends” said Adams. “We do the right things.”
Associated Press writers John Antczak and Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press.