On Monday, the city will end two pandemic-era policies that have become fixtures of city life for many residents: requiring people entering restaurants, entertainment venues and fitness centers to show proof of vaccination, and mandated masking in schools for most students.
Mayor Eric Adams announced the changes at a Times Square news conference on Friday, saying that the changes would together help revitalize the city, ushering in more economic activity and greater connection between students and teachers.
“We are going to open,” Adams said. “People are going to get back in restaurants, they're going to get back to their normal lives.”
Here’s what you need to know about the changes.
How will the end to the vaccination proof requirement work?
Starting Monday, the city will drop the program, begun under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, known as Key to NYC. City businesses — including restaurants, museums, zoos, gyms, clubs and concert venues — will no longer need to check proof of vaccination at the door.
Vaccine mandates will remain in effect for private employers and for city workers, Adams said.
Individual businesses can continue to require vaccination if they choose to. Adams said that city lawyers he spoke to agree that those businesses will not be violating any laws if they continue requiring proof of vaccination.
“We’re lifting the overall mandates that are issued by the city,” Adams said. “But we’re allowing each industry to make their determination.”
Some venues have already signaled that they aren’t ready to drop the requirements. The Broadway League, the trade association for the city’s biggest theaters, said that its own requirements — including vaccination proof and masking in the theater — will remain in place at least through April 1, when it will next update its rules.
Barclays Center, however, said that it will no longer require proof of vaccination for Brooklyn Nets games and other events.
What are the new rules for city public schools?
On Monday, students and teachers in grades kindergarten through 12 will not be required to wear a mask in school or on buses. Schools can also forego social distancing in classrooms, gyms and other public spaces inside their campuses.
Students and classrooms below kindergarten age — such as city-run infant and toddler care, as well as 3-K and pre-K — will still be required to wear masks. Adams said the city is keeping that part of the mandate in place because those children are still not eligible for vaccination, and because younger children face a higher risk of hospitalization if infected with COVID-19.
“People wanted to say, let's lift it across the board, but that's not what the science was showing us,” Adams said.
Students and teachers can continue to wear masks if they want to, and everyone has to wear a mask in school health care settings, such as nurses’ offices.
The city’s education department will continue its surveillance testing of students and teachers, Adams said.
How are other city leaders responding?
Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who joined Adams at the news conference announcing the changes, welcomed them, but some other city leaders have signaled their opposition.
In a letter sent to Adams this week, Comptroller Brad Lander, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine listed health measures they wanted the city to implement as it lifts the vaccination and masking requirements, including maintaining a testing corps that would be ready for a new variant.
In a statement, Williams called it “unnecessary and unwise” to get rid of Key to NYC.
“Vaccine requirements are helping New Yorkers both be safe and feel safe as they patronize local businesses, and we should only move forward only in a way that ensures we don’t go backward,” Williams said. “Lifting Key2NYC sends the wrong message at the wrong time.”
New York state Sen. Liz Krueger, who represents parts of Manhattan, said on Twitter that she opposed ending Key to NYC as well.
Adams said he understood that some people are still in favor of vaccination proof requirements, especially for restaurants, but insisted that the city needed to relax its pandemic-era rules in order to reinvigorate the local economy.
“This is a celebratory moment. Why aren't we celebrating this?” Adams said. “We’ve been waiting for this moment so long.”
Is the city in a safe enough place to end these rules?
The key metrics on COVID-19 are all trending in the right direction. Daily new case numbers are the lowest they've been since before the delta variant wave, in July 2021, according to city data.
About three-fourths of all city residents — and 87% of adults — are fully vaccinated. Key gaps, however, remain in several neighborhoods, especially in Brooklyn neighborhoods with large numbers of Black and Hasidic Jewish residents. About 36% of Black residents, 33% of white residents and 19% of Latino residents have not received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Health experts say that while the city has made tremendous progress in recent months on vaccination, it still experienced a significant surge in cases and hospitalizations during the wintertime omicron wave. That wave saw twice as many Black city residents hospitalized than white residents, according to a recent city analysis.
New variants may still be on the horizon, health experts say.
Dr. Jay Varma, a top health aide to de Blasio, wrote in a Daily News op-ed that he thinks ending Key to NYC now is a mistake, since it can still work to convince people to get vaccinated.
“To end COVID-19 vaccine verification, I think we need enough scientific certainty that the virus is not continuing to mutate into more dangerous forms and that our vaccination schedule, whatever it becomes, provides durable protection against all future variants in all age groups,” Varma wrote.
Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at CUNY’s School of Public Health, said he wasn’t convinced that Key to NYC was still working as a strong vaccination incentive. It also doesn’t effectively limit spread of the virus, he said, because while studies show that vaccination helps prevent serious illness and death, it does not necessarily stop people from spreading the virus.
Nash said that the city needs to redouble efforts to improve vaccination coverage as it removes Key to NYC.
“It needs a strategy,” Nash said. “We can't say, we’re good. That would be a big mistake.”
“We are still in the midst of a pandemic, and the risk of a worse variant looms,” he added. “We need to be in a better place than we were last December, and where we are now.”