Masks will no longer be required in public schools and proof-of- vaccination is no longer required for many indoor activities.
Mayor Eric Adams opened a new chapter of the pandemic in New York City on Friday, ending requirements that masks be worn in public schools and that proof of vaccination be presented by those dining indoors, using gyms and going to entertainment venues.
The mayor announced the moves in Times Square, a symbol of vibrancy at a significant moment for a city that was once an epicenter of the pandemic and where nearly 40,000 people have died.
Mr. Adams framed the decision to drop the mandates as part of his broader effort to reopen the city, whose economy has been battered by the coronavirus, and to restore a sense of normalcy after a steep drop in Covid-19 cases.
New York, Mr. Adams declared, had beaten back the Omicron variant of the virus, largely by ensuring that millions of people were vaccinated, and New Yorkers and tourists could enjoy the city again.
“We are winning,” Mr. Adams said. “Let’s celebrate.”
The mayor’s announcement coincided with Los Angeles County’s lifting of nearly all of its indoor mask and vaccine-verification requirements. Masks are no longer mandatory in grocery stores, restaurants, bars and other public settings, and patrons can enter indoor bars, wineries and most other businesses without proof-of-vaccination or negative virus test results.
California state rules still require vaccination proof or negative test results to enter large indoor events, and masks must still be worn on transit and in other high-risk settings, including hospitals. The city of Los Angeles will, for the time being, still require bars, restaurants and many other indoor businesses to check vaccination status.
In New York, students will no longer have to wear masks indoors at public schools starting Monday and people will not have to show vaccination proof to visit restaurants, gyms and venues like movie theaters. Masks will still be required on public transit, and at Broadway theaters and some other places.
Mr. Adams, a Democrat who took office in January, has chosen to maintain other pandemic-related restrictions, including a vaccine mandate for employees of private companies who have returned to in-person work. Municipal workers are also still required to be vaccinated; about 1,400 who refused, less than 1 percent of the city work force, have been fired.
Other major cities are also moving to end some mandates. Dallas and Houston made masks optional at schools, and Chicago is expected to do so soon. Schools in Boston, Washington and Seattle continue to require that masks be worn, although officials in most of those cities have ended requirements that people be vaccinated to enter businesses.
Some business leaders in New York have welcomed the end of the vaccine requirement and hope it will help restaurants and other businesses rebound after two difficult years. It will now be up to individual businesses to decide whether to continue asking for vaccination proof, a requirement that has helped some workers and patrons feel comfortable.
Some elected officials, including Chi Ossé, a City Council member from Brooklyn, are encouraging restaurants to continue requiring vaccination.
Virus cases have dropped sharply in the past month after an Omicron-driven surge. The city is now logging about 500 cases and 25 hospitalizations a day compared with more than 40,000 cases and 1,000 hospitalizations a day in January.
Still, some health experts have raised concerns that Mr. Adams is moving too quickly to drop the pandemic restrictions. His critics argue that the proof-of-vaccination requirement, known as the Key to NYC program, has helped keep New Yorkers safe, especially given how many international visitors the city gets, and that vaccination rates vary widely among schools, potentially making some students and employees more vulnerable to infection.
Dr. Jay Varma, a top health adviser to Mr. Adams’s predecessor, Bill de Blasio, urged Mr. Adams in an opinion piece in The New York Daily News on Thursday to keep the proof-of-vaccination policy in place for restaurants.
Other elected officials, including Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, and Liz Krueger, a state senator from Manhattan, have also expressed concern about abandoning the policies.
“As we have seen over and over during the pandemic, when we let our guard down too soon it only serves to prolong the crisis,” Ms. Krueger said.
Mr. Adams has said that the proof-of-vaccination program worked by encouraging more New Yorkers to get vaccinated and that he would reinstate restrictions if cases were to soar again.
Nearly 87 percent of adult New Yorkers are fully vaccinated, according to city data. Rates are lower among children: Only about 56 percent of those 5 to 17 are fully vaccinated.
Adrienne Adams, the City Council speaker, said New Yorkers had reason to be optimistic. She added, however, that she wanted the city to start focusing on addressing the health disparities the pandemic helped expose, including lower vaccination rates among people of color.
Ms. Adams, who is not related to the mayor, cited city data showing that Black New Yorkers had been hospitalized with Covid-19 at more than twice the rate of their white counterparts during the recent Omicron wave.
Ms. Adams said in a statement that the city should “pursue a targeted and persistent effort to vaccinate New Yorkers” and maintain widespread testing in communities with low vaccination rates.
Also on Friday, the mayor announced a new color-coded alert system to let New Yorkers know when the risk of being exposed to the virus rises. The city’s current level is green, or “lower community spread.” Red stands for extremely high community spread. Officials will consider reviving the Key to NYC requirements if the city reaches the yellow, or medium, level.
Mr. Adams said he wanted children under 5 to continue wearing masks in classrooms because they are not yet eligible to be vaccinated and he worries about hospitalization rates for the youngest children. Some parents are frustrated that younger children are not being allowed to abandon masks yet.
“I know some people are concerned,” Mr. Adams said of continuing to require children under 5 to wear masks. “I would rather people complain against me, than losing my babies in our city.”
In early January, older New Yorkers, especially those over 75, had the highest hospitalization rates for Covid-19. Children under 5 had the highest hospitalization rate among children, although it was relatively low, at about 67 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.
Looking toward the next academic year, Mr. Adams said he would consider requiring all public school students to be vaccinated to attend school in the fall. Mr. Williams, the public advocate, and the city comptroller, Brad Lander, have both called on Mr. Adams to require Covid-19 vaccination next school year.
Mr. Adams has said in the past that it would be reasonable for schools to require the Covid-19 vaccine since they already require other vaccines.
“That’s part of what’s on the discussion block,” the mayor said on Friday.
Leaders of the unions that represent teachers and principals have supported the move to get rid of masks in schools.
“This is the responsible, thoughtful way to make our next transition,” Michael Mulgrew, the teachers’ union president, said on Friday. He added that schools would continue to test students for the virus to make sure cases remained low.
Mr. Williams and Mr. Lander sent a joint letter to the mayor on Thursday urging him to prepare for the emergence of another virus variant later this year. They asked that the city provide high-quality masks to schools and create all-masked classrooms for teachers and students whose immune systems are compromised or who live with someone whose immunities are weakened.
“We have among us many immunocompromised and vulnerable New Yorkers,” the letter said. “A compassionate city owes them the opportunity to live safe and full lives.”
Jill Cowan contributed reporting.