Mask Mandates Are Returning in Many Cities. N.Y.C. Is Holding Back.


With the Delta variant of the coronavirus surging, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York on Monday stopped short of reinstating an indoor mask mandate even as more cities and at least one state did so.

City officials have been deliberating what measures might be needed to head off a more serious resurgence in New York, the nation’s largest city and once the epicenter of the pandemic. Los Angeles County and Washington, D.C., have recently reintroduced mask requirements indoors; Louisiana did so on Monday, as did San Francisco and several surrounding Northern California counties.

But Mr. de Blasio made a different calculation, saying he wanted to focus on increasing vaccination rates, and was concerned that requiring everyone to wear masks would remove an incentive for those who are considering getting vaccinated now.

For months, Dr. Jay Varma, the mayor’s senior adviser for public health, has been telling the mayor that the winning strategy is to focus on vaccinations, and that everything else is secondary.

Dr. Varma’s focus on vaccinations appears to have made an impression on Mr. de Blasio, who on Monday said, “Everything we do is vaccine-centric.”

But even as the nation on Monday hit President Biden’s goal of getting at least one vaccination shot to 70 percent of American adults, New York City’s vaccination rate has slowed, and the city has seen a rapid rise in coronavirus cases — more than 1,200 cases per day, roughly six times the number in June.

The increase has placed New York City under new C.D.C. guidelines recommending masks in areas of high transmission, which the agency characterizes as anything above 50 new infections per 100,000 residents. All five counties in New York City are above that rate, with Staten Island recording 157 cases per 100,000 residents over the last week, according to the C.D.C.

The mayor said that he agreed with the C.D.C.’s guidance and pointed out that he was aligned with leaders in New Jersey and Connecticut who similarly encouraged mask use but did not require it.

“We want to strongly recommend that people wear masks in indoor settings even if you’re vaccinated,” Mr. de Blasio said.

The city’s fragile economic recovery may be a factor in the city’s decision; a broader mask mandate could reinforce fears that it remains unsafe to return to work, and prompt employers to reconsider their plans to have their workers return to offices after Labor Day. Large-scale gatherings like weddings could also be thrown into doubt.

“They can’t go back to masks and think that restaurants are going to thrive and people are going to return to the office,” said Kathryn Wylde, the chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit group backed by the business sector.

Ms. Wylde instead called for a national vaccine mandate.

A mask mandate might also interrupt Mr. de Blasio’s focus on the city’s rejuvenation, which has animated his administration in recent months, as it has brought its employees back to the office, hosted a ticker-tape parade and rolled out plans for major concerts across the city.

Mr. de Blasio has also said a mandate could be difficult to enforce.

Shortly after he spoke, Representative Adriano Espaillat and Councilman Mark Levine, who chairs the health committee, demanded the mayor act more decisively to combat the virus.

“We’re not acting fast enough to slow this,” Mr. Levine said. “The truth is that in public settings, like night clubs, like movie theaters, you should assume there’s a good chance someone there is carrying the virus.”

Mr. Levine and Mr. Espaillat argued that New York City should require businesses such as movie theaters, bars and gyms to require proof of vaccination for entry, or else proof that an individual received a negative Covid-19 test within the last 72 hours.

“New Yorkers deserve to have the assurance that somebody that is next to them, in a confined area, has vaccinated themselves or has tested negative,” Mr. Espaillat said.

Los Angeles County reinstated its mask mandate last month, and Washington began to require masks over the weekend. The Democratic mayors of Atlanta and Kansas City, Mo., have reinstated forms of mask mandates, and Chicago’s mayor is considering one.

In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said statewide indoor mask requirements would apply to all people ages 5 and older, adding that the rise in virus cases and hospitalizations were “threatening the ability of hospitals to deliver care.”

Dr. Naveena Bobba, San Francisco’s acting health officer, characterized the city’s move as a temporary but necessary measure to “help us deal with the Delta variant, which is causing a sharp increase in cases, and we know increases in hospitalizations and deaths will follow.”

Many Republican governors have resisted the idea of mask mandates. Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas issued an executive order barring local governments and state agencies from mandating vaccination and reinforcing an earlier order that prohibited officials from requiring face masks.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida last week signed an executive order giving parents the power to decide whether their children should wear masks in schools, after Broward County, the state’s second largest school district, voted to require masks.

“In Florida, there will be no lockdowns,” Mr. DeSantis said to cheers at a restaurant in Cape Coral, Fla., on Friday. “There will be no school closures. There will be no restrictions and no mandates.”

In New York, Mr. de Blasio has said that he wants to focus on vaccination, and he is considering France-style measures to require vaccination or a negative test to visit restaurants or movie theaters, akin to what Mr. Levine and Mr. Espaillat recommended.

Mr. de Blasio, however, believes that New Yorkers will be motivated to get vaccinated if they believe they will have more freedoms once they do so, like the ability to go about their lives without masks.

“We want to focus on vaccination, vaccination, vaccination,” Mr. de Blasio said on Monday. “We want to make very clear the separation between all the good things, all the opportunity, all the positives that will be available to people who are vaccinated versus an increasingly more limited world for folks who are unvaccinated. So, that’s the strategic thrust.”

Mr. de Blasio is concerned that a mask mandate could undermine vaccination efforts in communities that are hesitant after having conversations with leaders in those communities and reviewing polling data, according to a person who is familiar with his thinking.

Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, said he agreed that a mask mandate was not necessary right now.

“I don’t believe we’re there with a mandate yet, unless C.D.C. tells us; whatever the science is, we must follow, but then personal responsibility must kick in,” Mr. Adams told reporters on Monday. “But vaccination, vaccination, vaccination. Let’s get on the ground.”

Mr. Adams said he would distribute masks in high-risk communities this weekend.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said local governments should decide whether to embrace the federal guidance on masks.

“It’s up to the local governments,” Mr. Cuomo said. “But local governments, you should adopt that C.D.C. mask guidance.”

Mr. Cuomo also announced on Monday that public transit workers will be required to be vaccinated or face weekly testing starting on Labor Day. The new requirement applies to 68,000 employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates New York City’s sprawling subway and bus system, and to workers of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who work at New York-based airports, bridges and tunnels.

New Yorkers are already required to wear masks on public transit and in hospitals. Masks will be required at schools; Mr. de Blasio has been adamant that classes will be held in person in September.

Mr. de Blasio also announced last week that city workers must get vaccinated or face weekly testing and offered a $100 incentive for people who get vaccinated at city sites.

On Monday, he said the city had hit an important milestone — 10 million vaccine doses administered — and announced a new policy: a vaccine mandate for new city employees.

“Every single new person hired by the City of New York, before they report to work, they must provide proof of vaccination,” he said.

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat in his final year in office, said he was open to considering a mask mandate in the future.

“We’re not taking any tool off the table going forward,” he said, “depending on what the data and science tells us.”

Reporting was contributed by Katie Glueck, Joseph Goldstein, Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Daniel E. Slotnik.


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