Mayor Eric Adams said on Sunday that New York City was preparing to eliminate school mask mandates and vaccine requirements for restaurants, gyms and movie theaters by March 7 if reports of new coronavirus cases in the city remain low.
Many in the city hope the rollback will help restore a sense of normalcy in the city and boost its economic recovery. Both Mr. Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York have focused on reviving the city, where the unemployment rate has stayed stubbornly high.
Mr. Adams, who has said for weeks that he was eager to remove virus-related restrictions, promised to make a final decision by Friday. He said he wanted to give business owners time to adapt — a nod to the toll that the virus and related restrictions have taken on small businesses.
Ms. Hochul announced on Sunday that a statewide mask mandate for schools would be lifted on Wednesday, leaving mask policy to local school officials after that.
The governor said the mandate had been vital in battling the Omicron surge, which has now largely receded. “When I look back at what was going on just a short time ago, I am so happy that we did have a mask requirement in place for schools at the time,” she said. “That’s how we kept these numbers from getting even worse.”
On Saturday, New York State announced a statewide seven-day average test positivity rate below 2 percent, and fewer than 2,000 hospitalizations, for the first time since last fall. The state is now reporting an average of about 2,400 new coronavirus cases a day, roughly the same as in early August and far below the peak of more than 74,000 a day in mid-January.
New York City’s vaccine mandate for indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms, known as the Key to NYC program, was imposed by Mr. Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio. The city’s vaccine requirement for most municipal employees remains in effect.
About 59 percent of students in city schools have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, the city reported last week, compared with about 96 percent of adults.
Dr. Uché Blackstock, a doctor who focuses on health equity, said that student vaccination rates varied widely from one New York City neighborhood to another, and that her children, who attend public schools in the city, would continue to wear masks.
“Removing mask policies in these schools is dangerous,” she wrote on Twitter.
Sunday’s announcements were celebrated by many across the state. “The business community is eager to get beyond pandemic conditions and restrictions,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City. And Republican lawmakers like Rob Ortt, the minority leader in the State Senate, called the moves long overdue.
However, in a recent poll by the Siena College Research Institute, 58 percent of New York registered voters said the state should wait to drop the mask mandate in schools until after reviewing data for early March. And 45 percent of respondents disapproved of the state dropping mask mandates in private businesses.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in New York City, said the union would “confer with our own independent doctors, look at the data from take-home test kits and random in-school testing this week, and make sure all of that is taken into account as New York City reviews its own school masking policy.”
Dead bodies are piling up on gurneys in hospital hallways as Hong Kong’s health system is overloaded by its biggest Covid-19 outbreak of the pandemic.
Officials said they were struggling to move the dead to the city’s public morgues quickly enough after more than 400 people died from Covid-19 last week, according to the latest official statistics. The news comes as the city is struggling to tamp down on an Omicron-fueled outbreak, with more than 26,000 cases and 83 deaths reported on Sunday.
The city’s hospital authority blamed transportation delays for the situation. “That is why some bodies that were planned to be transported stayed in the hospital,” said Lau Ka-hin, the chief manager of quality and standards at Hong Kong’s hospital authority.
The city’s three public mortuaries, which can take up to 3,000 bodies, are nearly at full capacity, a top official for the Center for Health Protection said on Sunday.
Public hospitals are overwhelmed as many of the sick have rushed to seek medical help in recent weeks. Over the last two weeks, Hong Kong has recorded an 821 percent spike in new cases, according to a New York Times database. Hospitals have run out of beds in isolation wards, leaving many patients waiting on gurneys on the street outside the hospitals.
The surge in cases is putting Hong Kong’s strict zero-Covid strategy under pressure. Mainland China has pursued a similar strategy. Chinese officials and pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong have been calling for more stringent measures to try to stamp out the outbreak, including a citywide lockdown.
But Hong Kong lacks the kinds of resources that mainland officials have used to lock down entire cities. Hong Kong officials said they planned to ease strict testing and isolation rules in order to help free up resources, including allowing some children who test positive to stay at home instead of separating them from their parents and hospitalizing them.
They have also appealed to the public to only go to the hospital if they have severe symptoms in order to allow more space for medical emergencies.
Kyrie Irving, the Nets’ star guard, will still be ineligible to play in home games at Barclays Center in Brooklyn if New York City lifts its vaccine mandate for restaurants, gyms and most indoor spaces, as Mayor Eric Adams said Sunday he intended to do by March 7 if Covid-19 cases remain low.
Irving, who is unvaccinated against the coronavirus, will still be subject to a separate private-sector vaccine mandate.
Fabien Levy, a press secretary for Adams, confirmed as much on Sunday, writing on Twitter, “Fastest way for all New Yorkers to get back to normal life is for us ALL to get vaccinated.”
It’s unclear if the private sector mandate will be lifted, although Adams has been suggesting in recent weeks that many vaccine requirements will be removed. The city’s press office didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did the Nets.
“Within the next few weeks you’re going to see many of these mandates dissipate,” Adams said last week. Earlier this month, Adams had called the rule that bars Irving from playing in home games “unfair,” given that unvaccinated athletes from opposing teams can play at both Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden, the home of the Knicks.
Irving has played in only 15 of the Nets’ 61 games, in part because of his refusal to be vaccinated, and will not be able to play Monday night’s home game against Toronto. Irving’s inconsistent availability and injuries to other players are among factors that have contributed to the Nets’ descent from one of the best teams in the N.B.A. to one now fighting just to make the playoffs. The Nets (32-29) are the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed with roughly a quarter of the season left. To avoid the league’s play-in tournament for the postseason, the Nets would need to finish as the sixth seed or better.
“I’m following it as much as you guys are,” Irving told reporters after the Nets’ victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday. “So just remaining patient and just seeing where things end up in this next week or so or next two weeks, I’m not too sure.”
The House of Representatives is lifting the House floor mask mandate in time for President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, ending a requirement that had allowed some Republicans to express their defiance, but at a personal cost.
Congress’s attending physician, Brian P. Monahan, delivered the news on Sunday, saying coronavirus cases had dropped so much in Washington that mask wearing should become optional, not mandatory.
“People with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with Covid-19 should wear a properly fitted, high-quality filtration mask,” Dr. Monahan said, but even that was advisory.
It was yet another mask mandate being lifted, as others are being eliminated in states and cities across the country.
For months now, compliance with the mandate in the Capitol complex has been spotty and partisan. But on the House floor, the House sergeant-at-arms has diligently enforced the mask mandate and reported scofflaws to the House Ethics Committee. It has levied fine after fine, especially on Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew S. Clyde, both Republicans of Georgia, who racked up more than $100,000 combined in fines while declaring the mandate authoritarian.
Compliance on the Senate side of the Capitol was far looser, with no real consequences to ignoring the mandate.
The date for the president’s State of the Union address is later this year than is traditional — it will be the first to be delivered in March. And, unlike last year’s event, it will be open to all members of Congress, who will be required to produce a negative coronavirus test before entering the chamber for the president’s annual message.
Last year, the president spoke to a socially distanced audience of fewer than 200 officials, a small fraction of the packed crowd of lawmakers that is typically present for the speech. Those who were allowed to attend were instructed to wear masks, and they sat with several empty seats separating them from other audience members.
South Korea said it would temporarily stop checking for proof of vaccination at cafes, restaurants and other venues starting on Tuesday, in order to free up more workers to focus on battling the Omicron surge gripping the nation.
In a sign that the current wave has yet to peak, the country reported its highest death toll in a 24-hour period on Monday. The 114 deaths recorded surpassed the previous record set only two days before.
There were 139,626 new confirmed cases on Monday, according to the government. South Korea is currently reporting more than twice as many cases as the United States every day. The nation’s daily average of new cases is up by 160 percent over the past two weeks, according to Our World in Data.
The vaccine pass used at restaurants and other public venues was introduced in December. Those who don’t have a vaccine pass need to show a negative P.C.R. test, and having to administer all those Covid tests and deliver the test results was overburdening the staff.
Park Hyang, a senior health ministry official, said at a briefing on Monday that eliminating the vaccine pass would allow workers to focus on the detection of the virus in high-risk groups — those in their 60s and older, as well as people with pre-existing medical conditions. The majority of people who test positive are being asked to simply look after themselves at home.
In other developments:
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand announced that vaccinated New Zealanders and visa holders from Australia will be able to enter the country freely without isolating beginning on Wednesday. The country abandoned its zero Covid approach last year and is now battling a coronavirus outbreak of its own.
France lifted its mask mandate on Monday for indoor establishments that require proof of vaccination to enter, a category that includes restaurants, bars, movie theaters and museums. Masks will still be mandatory in spaces like public transportation or stores that do not require vaccination.
Sally Snowman loves to be alone. As the keeper of Boston Light, a centuries-old lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, she’s had a lot of practice. For most of the last 19 years, she’s lived there from April through October.
She fills the days with work, cleaning the windows, mowing the lawn and sweeping the spiral staircase of the 90-foot lighthouse tower. She reads a lot and has watched a lot of sunsets. And she relishes every minute.
“It’s a relief to be out on the island,” Ms. Snowman, 70, said. When she’s by herself, “the wheels stop spinning.” Her time alone is restorative.
But not everyone feels the same way about solitude, and for the last two years, the pandemic has forced some version of it upon us all. We’ve seen fewer friends and spent more time at home. Some people have found themselves feeling lonelier, particularly if they were already single or living alone.
As we enter a new phase of the pandemic that’s less “wipe down your groceries” and more “welp, I guess this is our new normal,” occasional periods of isolation may be something we just fold into our lives, like digital vaccination cards or having a dedicated drawer for masks.
Whether you’re hoping for more time alone or less these days, solitude is something you can learn to appreciate.
— Holly Burns