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As Governor Hochul announced the expiration of the New York State indoor mask mandate and vaccination verification, W42ST readers reflected on the challenging, often confusing morass of municipal and personal decision making in the era of COVID-19. 

In a reader poll surveying reactions to the Governor’s announcement, 31.8% said they’d continue to wear a mask in any indoor situation, with 26.4% said that they’d continue to wear masks anywhere outside of their home, and 20.9% saying that they’d assess their mask-wearing based on the situation at hand. A further 7.8% said that they’d stop wearing masks aside from public transit, with 7% saying they’d stop wearing masks altogether. 

While the statewide mask ban and vaccination proof requirement has been lifted, there are some key differences applicable to life in NYC. Masks are still required on all forms of public transit, as well as in taxis and car services, in all healthcare settings, nursing homes, shelters, group residences, and schools.  

Proof of vaccination is still required for entry to all dining establishments, fitness centers, museums, theaters, and cultural institutions. Businesses and institutions may also still require masks at their discretion.

Governor Hochul removes her mask at a press conference. Photo: Office of NYS Governor

Many questioned the timing of Wednesday’s announcement, citing CDC Director Dr Rochelle Walensky’s statement on Tuesday that “now is not the moment” to drop mask mandates in schools and other public places. “We have and continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission — that is essentially everywhere in the country in public indoor settings,” said Walensky.

Several W42ST readers agreed. “It’s not a good idea to roll back COVID restrictions at this time, when even Dr Willensky of the CDC is saying that it is too soon, because hospitalizations are much higher than they were at the peak of the Delta surge last year. I hope that Mayor Adams will at least keep the current restrictions in place for NYC,” said Lana Forrester. 

Said reader Caroline: “Have we learned nothing? I think politicians keep jumping the gun to try and ‘get back to normal’ and that is why we are still in this pandemic, two years later. I am uncomfortable with a politician making calls that could prolong this pandemic and put high-risk individuals in harm’s way, just to make loud, self-centered constituents happy. Every time the mask mandate has been lifted because we’re at the tail end of a spike in cases — this time, Omicron — we get another spike. Decisions about this pandemic should be made by doctors, not politicians, and by an international group of doctors, as this is a global issue and it won’t matter if the US makes a call if no one else does. The CDC is currently saying it is too soon to stop wearing masks, and I trust them over the governor 10/10.”

Reader Dashiell Eaves agreed: “It feels political, and I fear it will extend the pandemic’s reign of terror.”

Masks have become a fixture (even for statues) during the pandemic. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Concern over the threat of new variants was high among reader responses, with one noting “I think she should have waited until spring. We just had a major surge at Christmas.” Keri J added: “Can’t wait to see what the next surge looks like!”  

Many respondents cited the risks of eventually opening up public spaces in NYC without masks or vaccination checks — while vaccination checks are still in place as part of the “Key to NYC” policy, there have been documented instances of lax enforcement, as when unvaccinated former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin dined indoors shortly before testing positive for COVID-19. 

Said reader Kathleen Coleman: “I will still wear my mask indoors or in a crowd until COVID, especially the omicron variant, is eliminated or when everyone is vaxxed and boosted.”

“To have any credibility if/when numbers rise again and masks are required again, officials have to allow the mandate to expire when numbers go down. Having said that, I will continue to wear a mask in any indoor setting and anywhere I don’t know the people around me. I can count on one hand the people I’m close with who have not had COVID, so taking no chances as a cancer survivor,” said another reader.

“It’s also unfair to older and immuno-compromised members of our society. I hope with our dense population, NYC keeps mandates for large gatherings, theater, movies, clubs, elevators, schools, in addition to public transportation. It’s also not fair at workplaces where we will be exposed to maskless unvaxxed people all day,” noted a reader replying to yesterday’s survey. 

Several readers worried that the safety they felt in theaters and concert halls would evaporate, however, Broadway theaters have pledged to keep enforcing a mask and vaccine mandate through at least April 30

The “Mask Up” message has become part of every Broadway show. Photo: Phil O’Brien

The other hotly contested public spaces — New York schools — have not yet lifted any mandates, and Wednesday’s news seemed to further stoke the flame of debate over appropriate next steps. 

While some readers thought “we should stay masked up, except for young school children,” others questioned the long-term educational impact of masking. “Can’t wait for this to happen for schools and daycares, the kids can’t learn properly,” and “I sure hope this means children will be able to stop wearing masks in schools soon — especially the ones younger than 6 who are trying to learn to speak, read, and understand facial emotions. The downsides of masks for little children far outweigh any possible benefit at this point!” said two readers. 

Other respondents noted a need to shift behavior to match COVID-19’s movement toward an endemic disease, however rocky the process may be. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” said one reader. “I think it’s time we start shifting policy towards living with the pandemic long-term. We have an arsenal of tools readily available that allow individuals to do their own risk assessment and act accordingly,” said another. 

Reader Sagar pointed out the possibility of a short-term spike followed by a long-term decline of the virus: “It seems reasonable from a clinical standpoint despite knowing that decreased masking will always increase transmission of viral illnesses. I would expect to see influenza and COVID rates slightly increase in the short term, but it does appear that the acute burden of illness will likely continue to drop globally.” 

Vaccination checks have become an accepted part of admission to Broadway shows. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Several respondents emphasized frustration towards the unvaccinated. Said reader Sam, “We must be realistic and move on from waiting for the sky to fall with the ‘next variant’ or twist of events. Those who are not vaccinated and are at more risk are doing so by their own accord — those of us that have been vaccinated and are more protected should not be held hostage to the unvaccinated.” 

Echoed Gregg: “Honestly, I’m tired of trying to protect the unvaccinated when they don’t want to protect themselves. We need to start moving on to a new normal. With vaccines and boosters and antiviral therapies and testing, I believe it’s time to let go of so much masking. If a more virulent strain arises we can always re-mask. We see other states surviving a lack of mask mandates. It’s time for us to move on and let NY heal.” 

Many W42ST readers found themselves somewhere in between, working through the exhausting, non-stop moral calculus of risk assessment and personal responsibility in a time marked by promising progress like the development of antiviral treatments and disappointing setbacks like the menace of a new, highly-transmissible variant

“Will still wear it indoors and much more often than not. But it’s good to move forward. Can now occasionally take off my mask outdoors without people incorrectly assuming I’m a Trump fan,” said Peter Shankman.

Peter Shankman in June 2020 — leading the way with his mask and message.

Said reader Douglas: “It’s a long time coming. I do think we need to address ‘mask shaming’ somehow though. Being fully vaccinated, I feel comfortable being without a mask, however, I understand that others may not and wish to continue masking. That is their right and I hope people can respect that.” 

Others noted that they’ll plan to wear their masks around high-risk people, in crowds, or during cold and flu season. And others still expressed frustration at the overall lack of clarity and cohesive decision-making from state and federal officials — “I honestly have been confused by what the actual mask rules have been during this latest wave,” said Chuck Kelly. 

Some cited the vast range of approaches in other countries — which vary from strict travel requirements for entry to Japan to Denmark’s recent release of all COVID-19 restrictions due to high vaccination rates. Without any universal agreement on the way forward, many readers were left more befuddled than ever. 

Dr Zehra Siddiqui at work.

W42ST asked Dr Zehra Siddiqui, Medical Director at Ryan Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center on 10th Avenue for some much-needed guidance in this uncertain third year of the pandemic. Said Dr. Siddiqui: “Government mandates are intended to serve the larger public in the best way possible. As a clinician, I guide my patients to consider their personal health circumstances and those of their loved ones to decide what measures they should take for their safety. These measures may change depending on surges in COVID-19. If you are unsure of what you should do, ask your health care provider to help guide you.”

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