Mayor Bill de Blasio stopped short of issuing a full mask mandate on Monday, instead strongly recommending that people wear masks inside all public indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status.
“We want to emphasize vaccinations, vaccinations. That is the whole ballgame,” the mayor said during his morning press briefing. His comments came amid rising COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
Earlier, Governor Andrew Cuomo held a separate press conference in which he urged localities to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance last week to prioritize indoor masking for all. Having been stripped of his “pandemic powers” in March and after the underlying emergency declaration expired in late June, Cuomo said he could no longer re-issue a statewide mask mandate without having the legislature pass a law for such a measure.
The governor also announced the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Port Authority would mandate vaccinations for their employees beginning on Labor Day. He also urged private businesses to require their customers to be vaccinated.
Asked why he did not opt for a stronger policy for face coverings, de Blasio said, “Mask wearing is not a substitute for vaccination.” The mayor added the city was following the CDC’s guidance which was a recommendation. “The CDC recommended, and we are recommending,” he said. De Blasio, who has repeatedly clashed with the governor over pandemic restrictions and reopening rules, said he did not have a conversation with the governor about the policy.
Last Tuesday, in the wake of a study of a recent outbreak in Cape Cod, the CDC advised that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in public areas whenever case rates rise about 50 infections per 100,000 residents. All five boroughs fall in this category. Following that study, a CDC internal document strongly suggested that the delta variant spreads faster than expected, potentially because vaccinated people can serve as carriers when community transmission rises too high.
The delta variant, the dominant strain in New York City since mid-May, has contributed to the national uptick in COVID cases. Nearly all recent hospitalizations and deaths are among unvaccinated Americans.
For weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio had resisted calls by academics and elected officials to update the mask rules—he has emphasized vaccinations first. Currently, everyone is still required to wear face coverings on public transportation as well as at schools and congregate dwelling facilities such as homeless shelters and nursing homes. Otherwise, vaccinated individuals are permitted to go maskless.
The mayor has repeatedly argued that focusing on masks would undermine the broader strategy of getting shots into more arms. “It’s important not to lose the forest from the trees,” de Blasio told CNN on Friday. “The main event is vaccination.”
On Monday, the mayor’s office expanded the vaccine requirements for city employees, stating that all new hires would be required to show proof of their shots prior to beginning their jobs. All of the city’s more than 300,000 municipal employees must either be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing by mid-September. Major cities like Los Angeles and Washington D.C. have issued indoor mask mandates.
The mayor’s decision not to require masks in all indoor public spaces will likely draw criticism. Experts have said a multi-pronged strategy makes sense in light of the increasing number of new cases. The seven-day rolling average of daily COVID cases is now over 1,000—for the first time since May. Between June 15th and July 12th, New Yorkers between the ages of 25-34 experienced the highest number of hospitalizations–followed closely by people over 75.
New York City had been responding to the variant by requiring vaccination or testing for city employees and rolling out a series of new incentives. Citywide, nearly 55% of all New Yorkers are fully vaccinated. Last week, the mayor announced that new shot takers would receive $100 at city-run vaccination sites. All of the city’s “Homecoming Week” concerts will require attendees to be vaccinated.
As of Monday, over 8,300 had received their first shot under the $100 bonus program, de Blasio said. Traffic doubled at city-run vaccination sites, he added.
But interviews conducted on the same day with residents in parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, which have full vaccination rates of below 50%, suggest a group that is strongly distrustful despite overwhelming evidence that the shots are safe and protect individuals from the worst outcomes.
Several young beachgoers at Orchard Beach in the Bronx said on Friday they were suspicious of how fast drugmakers developed the vaccines. In fact, nearly two decades of research laid the groundwork for the vaccine.
“How do you come up with the vaccine in less than a year and then boom, new vaccine. I don’t get that,” said Julisa Figueroa, a 23-year-old Tremont resident.
Malik Walls, 35, expressed concern and confusion about the vaccines’ side effects, which do not affect everyone, are typically minor and tend to go away after a few days.
“What’s the point of getting a vaccine if you’re still going to get sick?” Walls said.
Genesis Perez, a 32-year-old FedEx employee, said she would only get the vaccine if her employer requires it.
“I’m not gonna go willy nilly and take it myself. But if it’s mandated, then it’s mandated,” she said, adding, “But until then, I don’t feel like I need it. I’m very healthy.”
Ronald Hickman, a 23-year-old Parks Department employee, said he received the vaccine three days ago because he learned about the city’s upcoming requirements. “I was like, let me just get it out of the way,” he said. He said he had waited because he was worried about the side effects.
De Blasio has been urging private employers to mandate vaccinations, saying that they have the flexibility to impose stricter rules than the government. However, the U.S. Justice Department stated that both public agencies and private businesses could institute the vaccine requirements without violating federal law, even though the shots lack full approval.
He has applauded the decision by New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer to require all employees and customers to be vaccinated to work or dine in any of his restaurants.
On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Biden, spoke of the urgency of changing people’s minds on vaccination.
“Make it easy for them, convince them, do something to get them to be vaccinated because they are the ones that are propagating this outbreak,” he said.