Indoor Mask Mandates Still in Place As New Yorkers Raise Concerns About New CDC Guidelines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can safely unmask almost everywhere–and the reactions in New York are mixed.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is currently deliberating over whether to change New York’s mask policy, which still indicates that everyone who can “medically tolerate” a face covering must wear one in public if they’re unable to distance themselves from others. The state adopted the CDC’s last change on April 27th, relaxing mask usage for fully vaccinated people for some social gatherings.

But Cuomo and his health team are mulling whether to add the new rules, which lift restrictions outdoors and almost anywhere indoors, except for public transit, medical settings like doctor’s offices, on planes, and in congregate living settings such as nursing homes and prisons. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has yet to issue any policy changes, given the governor’s decision must first be made.

The CDC stipulated that people should follow state and local rules, as well as the policies of schools, workplaces and businesses. But some health experts are concerned that continued mask mandates could give rise to confusion or defiance.

“Yesterday’s announcement has shifted the onus of navigating safe practices to states, businesses, and schools,” said Prof. Allison Hoffman, an expert on health care law and policy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “They have to decide whether to continue to require masks in light of the guidance and also how to police whether people are vaccinated or not.”

New York became the first state to create a digital vaccine passport, but it isn’t required for indoor settings like grocery stores, bars or restaurants.

The mask policy was still intact Friday morning at Superfoodtown, a large grocery store on Fulton Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant, where about 40% of residents are fully vaccinated. Wale, assistant store manager and grocery manager, said he didn’t think the store policy would change right away and worried the new CDC guidance might cause problems.

“If someone’s not wearing a mask, we’d still tell them, ‘Hey, do you mind wearing a mask?’” said Wale, who declined to give his last name. “I can’t tell if you’re vaccinated or not. But if you decide not to, I’m not going to fight you over it.”

Luis Vargas, the manager at nearby Bravo Supermarket, said he would speak to the store owner over the weekend to “see if he feels comfortable not mandating employees and customers to have a mask on while they’re in the store.”

Vargas said he would be happy to let customers make their own decision about whether to mask. “People should be allowed to decide if they feel comfortable or not,” he said. “If you still want to wear it, you should feel free to wear it.”

Some parents are fretting about the risk of exposure for children under 12, who are still too young to get vaccinated.

“There has been this idea that kids don’t get COVID or don’t get sick,” Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist at Montclair State University, said on the Brian Lehrer Show Friday. “And that’s not entirely true. They’re less likely. I think that as a family, you need to make the decision about whether or not your children are at risk and what you feel comfortable doing.”

Janice Jenkins, a Crown Heights resident, said she is fully vaccinated but will continue to wear her mask in public. “I want to protect my grandkids because they’re young,” said Jenkins. “They’re 3 and 9, and I’m around them all the time.”

So far, New York City public schools haven’t changed their rules on masking and distancing. Mayor de Blasio said Thursday the city is still considering how to incorporate the federal edict.

“But the message is clear: vaccinations are the way to bring our city, our lives, back. Get vaccinated,” de Blasio said.

Cuomo said he’s discussing the guidance with other governors and the state health commissioner. “In New York, we have always relied on the facts and the science to guide us throughout the worst of this pandemic and in our successful reopening,” Cuomo said in a statement Thursday.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said Friday that he’s not ready to get rid of the state’s indoor mask mandate but that a policy change could be forthcoming “within a matter of weeks.” Connecticut is moving to free the face for indoor spaces on May 19th.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said the agency is working to issue new recommendations for specific scenarios such as summer camp and travel.

“[The new mask policy is] wonderful news in terms of the CDC’s assessment of vaccine efficacy and dropping cases,” said Hoffman of UPenn Law, “but it’s fraught in terms of implementation.”