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New York State’s Mask Mandate Is Lifting. What Now?

Vaccination has sent COVID-19 infection rates sharply downward, but we’re a long way from herd immunity, and now we’re on the honor system. Here’s our guide to navigating the new normal.

Photo by Ivan Radic. Published under CC license.
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It’s official: This week, New York State’s mask mandate lifts, along with many of the ever-shifting emergency rules and regulations that have shaped all our lives since the middle of last March. 

The pandemic isn’t over, but for the vaccinated—a group that now includes more than half of the state’s adult population and counting—its worst risks are in the rear-view mirror. 

So what next? 

New York’s New Normal

On May 13, the CDC announced new guidance, based on the better-than-expected performance of vaccines and falling infection rates nationwide. Vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most situations, the CDC advised, nor do they need to be tested for COVID-19 after exposure to a known positive case, unless they live or work in a correctional facility or homeless shelter. 

It took a few days, and some pressure from local elected officials, but New York State is now following suit: As of Wednesday, May 19, vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most businesses and public settings in New York. Unvaccinated people must wear masks, in accordance with both state and federal guidance—but with no practical way to determine who has been vaccinated in many settings, the state’s declaration effectively ends the mask mandate. 

Exceptions apply: The CDC is still advising that masks must be worn by everyone in healthcare settings, on public transportation, in schools, and in correctional facilities and homeless shelters, and New York State is following that guidance. Businesses in New York are also free to require both employees and customers to wear masks if they choose, and the state Department of Health officially recommends that masks be worn indoors in places where the vaccination status of patrons is not known. 

Capacity limits for events and businesses aren’t going away entirely, but they’re loosening considerably. Starting Wednesday, the statewide cap on indoor gatherings goes from 100 to 250. The cap on private residential gatherings, formerly 10 for indoors and 25 for outdoors, now moves to 50 indoors and 500 outdoors. 

For large event venues, percentage-based limits on occupancy still apply: Indoor events, previously capped at 10 percent of capacity, can now go up to 30 percent. Outdoor events can operate at 33 percent of capacity.

If all patrons can produce proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test, events and businesses alike can exceed the state capacity limits and do away with social distancing requirements altogether. “Proof of full vaccination status can be provided by patrons through paper form, digital application, or the State’s Excelsior Pass,” a state press release advises.

Capacity for businesses of all kinds in New York State, including restaurants and places of worship, will no longer be a percentage of maximum occupancy. Instead, the only limit that will apply is that there must be room inside the business for occupants to have six-foot social distancing.

Restaurant and bar curfews were lifted statewide as of Monday, May 17 for outdoor dining. On May 31, indoor dining and catered events will no longer be subject to a curfew. 

Who’s Still At Risk

The CDC’s new guidance caught a lot of people off guard. Just like in the early days of the pandemic, the coronavirus is moving faster than our social practices around it—only this time, it’s going in the other direction. In many places in the US, infection rates that once were trending exponentially upward are now undergoing “exponential decay,” due to the vaccines as well as the return of outdoor socialization, and the shift is welcome news to epidemiologists.

Still, with just over half of adults in New York State fully vaccinated, and children under 12 still not eligible for a vaccine, we are a long way from vaccinating the roughly 80 percent scientists think we’ll need to truly confer herd immunity across the population. And even if New York State as a whole manages to get to 80 percent vaccination, local communities with low vaccination rates might still be subject to recurring waves of infection.

Currently, there is wide variation in vaccination rates at the county level in New York. According to the state’s vaccine tracker, west-of-Hudson counties in the Hudson Valley and Catskills are mostly falling behind the state rate of 50.2 percent for people who have received at least one shot; the farthest behind is rural Delaware, with 41.2 percent. The exception on the west side of the Hudson is Ulster County, which at 57 percent is the most-vaccinated county in the Hudson Valley and Catskills region. East of the Hudson, the percentage of the population that has at least one dose ranges from 51.6 percent in Dutchess County to 56.7 percent in Westchester. 

One group that remains at high risk overall, despite the advent of effective vaccines, is the immunocompromised. To the dismay of patients and their doctors alike, the COVID-19 vaccines simply don’t work very well on people with compromised immune systems—and the lifting of mask mandates is thrusting them into a world in which their lives and movements may be even more constrained than they have been throughout the past year. (River staff writer Lissa Harris’s father is a heart transplant recipient, and thus among this crew. —Ed.) The Washington Post ran a story on Tuesday delving into the dilemma faced by cancer patients, the HIV-positive, organ transplant recipients, and other immunocompromised people. “I am 100 percent acting like I am not immunized,” kidney transplant patient Maria Hoffman tells the paper. 

The COVID-19 risk faced by younger children, the immunocompromised, and people who are still unvaccinated depends on the local infection rate in their communities. In an effort to drive infection rates further down, some businesses and local governments are beginning to offer incentives for people to get vaccinated, ranging from a free donut at your local Krispy Kreme to a potential $1 million lottery payday in the state of Ohio. If they prove effective, vaccine incentives may soon become more prevalent: The New York State Association of Counties recently launched a “Vaccine Uptake Initiative” to track vaccine encouragement efforts, find out which ones work, and allow local health departments to share their most effective practices. 

How to Get Help 

It’s been a long year-plus for those of us on the COVID beat, and we’ve had a lot of the optimism beaten out of us. But we’ve got to admit it’s getting better. New cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 are all headed downward, both in our region and nationwide. And as our collective physical health begins to recover, the local economy—buoyed both by stimulus funding and by people feeling safer to go out again—is on the rebound too.

For many people who have been suffering, physically or financially, the pandemic is far from over. There are a lot of resources out there to help those whose lives and livelihoods have taken a hit from COVID-19, and potentially more in the pipeline as federal stimulus funding makes its way down to the local level. We encourage people in need of help, whether personally or for a business or both, to get in touch with local nonprofits, service agencies, development organizations, and elected representatives to see if there are programs out there that might fit the bill.

For lower-income New Yorkers who need help with rent or utilities, a new state program is soon to start taking applications. The New York State Emergency Rental Assistance Program does not yet have a launch date, but is expected to start taking applications sometime in May, and a state information portal about the program is currently up and running

A key lifeline for businesses during the pandemic, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), has run out of funding before its May 31 deadline, except for a small pot of funding set aside for applications made through community development financial institutions. But there is still a wide array of federal and state programs available to businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic. The federal Small Business Administration is making grants to restaurants and venues with stimulus funding, and offering low-interest loans to small businesses and nonprofits. 

New York State has also launched various programs and tax credits to help businesses get back on their feet; keep an eye on Empire State Development’s Business Pandemic Recovery Initiative website to stay on top of opportunities. The impacts of funding hammered out in New York’s recent state budget are beginning to be felt at the local level: Just this week, state senator Michelle Hinchey’s office announced $1 million in restored state budget funding for the promotion of tourism, a multi-billion-dollar industry in the region and a major driver of local employment.

Navigating the New World

The most important thing you can do to protect yourself and people around you, if you haven’t already, is to get vaccinated. In real-world use as well as in clinical trials, all three of the vaccines in use in the US have been strongly protective so far against infection and transmission as well as against symptomatic disease. Although a small fraction of those vaccinated can still become infected and pass the virus to others, the risk of developing serious illness after full vaccination is tiny compared to the risk of becoming sick from COVID-19 if you are unvaccinated.

If you aren’t vaccinated, if you’re immunocompromised, or if you are still waiting for your vaccine to take full effect, a mask will offer some protection to both you and those around you from COVID-19 infection. 

Apart from vaccines, the best protection against COVID-19 is good ventilation. Outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is vanishingly rare. It’s an emerging field of science, but infectious disease experts are increasingly finding that in indoor spaces, having good ventilation is more effective at reducing COVID-19 risk than maintaining six feet of distance between people. For some spaces, that just means opening a window; for others, it may mean investing in upgrades to heating and cooling systems. One cost-effective solution, if neither of those is an option: A cheap box fan with a MERV-13 filter taped to the back of it will do a decent job of removing particles from the air in an average-sized room. 

Guidance for Businesses 

If you run or manage a business, you may be wondering how to deal with vaccine and mask policies going forward, either for your employees or your customers. It’s still a bit of a brave new world: Guidance for employers from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on how to handle vaccination policy is still in flux. And with rhetoric running hot on vaccines within workplaces as well as in the public at large, employers who want to keep their workplaces safe without stepping on the rights and privacy of their employees and customers are in a tough spot.

Employers who want to require their workers to be vaccinated are legally allowed to do so, the EEOC has said—but in doing so, they must be careful not to demand that employees disclose protected medical information. Likewise, any New York State business is free to require its employees and customers to wear masks, even though the statewide mask mandate is on its way out. 

While clear federal guidelines have not yet emerged to help businesses navigate the new normal, local business associations or employment lawyers may be able to help businesses craft good (and legally sound) safety policies. One good local source of information is the Dutchess Business Notification Network, a consortium of local groups that has a wealth of resources for businesses on its website.

The landscape is likely to shift all over again once the vaccines receive full FDA approval, not just the emergency use authorization they are currently operating with. Pfizer’s vaccine, the first to be authorized back in December, is already in the pipeline with an application submitted on May 7 for full FDA approval, and Moderna is expected to follow suit soon. Once the vaccines receive full approval, legal experts predict that businesses, schools, and other organizations might be more inclined to enact vaccine mandates. New York State may follow suit as well, and has already mandated vaccines for returning SUNY and CUNY college students this fall. 

It’s Up To You, New York 

With the statewide mask mandate lifting, and most pandemic restrictions along with it, we’re largely on the honor system now. Whether our newly restored freedom lasts, or whether we go back to shutdowns and emergency regulations, depends on what happens next. If emerging virus variants roar back and threaten to overwhelm hospitals once again, we are likely to see some of the restrictions we lived under this past year make an encore appearance.

Stay safe, Hudson Valley and Catskills readers—for your kids, for your neighbors, and for yourselves. 

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Check out The River’s local guide to getting vaccinated in the Hudson Valley and Catskills region.

To read more of our coronavirus coverage, visit our coronavirus page.