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NYC Health Chief Hedges on Indoor Masks; Stores Face Key Decision Ahead of Major Reopening

In addition to no indoor masks for the fully vaccinated starting Wednesday, percentage-based capacity limits for eateries, retail, salons, gyms, museums, theaters and offices will be eliminated across New York state

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What to Know

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo says NY will adopt the CDC's new indoor mask and social distancing guidance for fully vaccinated people starting Wednesday, which will be the tri-state's biggest reopening day yet
  • Nearly all remaining business restrictions will lift across NY, NJ and CT that day; NJ will be the only of the three states to retain its indoor mask mandate at that point, though Gov. Murphy hopes to lift it soon
  • NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio added another perk to his list of vaccine incentives Tuesday -- free merchandise for those who get dosed at a new mobile site outside Barclays and a chance to win free Nets tickets

Just a day before the three tri-states make the most aggressive move in their pandemic recoveries after more than a year of devastation, business owners in New York are left with a crucial decision: Masks on or masks off for the fully vaccinated?

The reactions from New Yorkers are mixed after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks or socially distance in most indoor settings starting Wednesday (he previously adopted the CDC's outdoor guidance).

Some celebrated the news because to them, it means they can get back to business-as-usual. To others, like Jennifer Bradish of Garden City, there's a concern non-vaccinated people will take off their masks in public settings as well.

"For my safety, the safety of my family and the safety of others I will keep my mask on," Bradish said.

The tri-state is set to make its biggest reopening leap yet, with no more capacity limits on businesses and other restrictions going away, but the rules regarding mask-wearing vary — leading to confusion. NBC New York's Sarah Wallace and Greg Cergol report.

New York City's health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, says the risk is low as it relates to that potential issue outdoors. Indoors, he says he worries "primarily about the spread of the virus among unvaccinated people."

"This includes children as well as people for whom immunity from vaccination has not fully kicked in," Chokshi added. "I do recommend continued mask use in many indoor settings until even more people are vaccinated."

Personally, the city's top doctor, who is fully immunized, says he plans to wear a mask in most cases for some time to make others feel more comfortable.

More than 42% of all New Yorkers have been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, including the newly eligible 12- to 15-year-old age group. Nearly 53% of the state's adult population is fully vaccinated, while the city will hit the 50% milestone soon.

Cuomo says the state will no longer mandate masks for fully vaccinated people as of Wednesday, but he also said private businesses had the right to enforce whatever additional COVID requirements they want along with ongoing, industry-specific state standards on air filtration, disinfection and other health protocol.

It's not necessarily a simple decision for businesses. If they opt to take down their "Masks Required" signs, they'll have to decide how to check someone's vaccination status or decide not to check at all, relying on a hopefully honest public to protect their communities. What if other loyal customers ask if others are checked?

Cuomo said he expects that to happen in some cases. Stores and restaurants can use the state's Excelsior Pass to do that. But is that something they want to take on? Checking all customers' vaccination status at the door? Do they have the staff?

Should they even go that far if they do? For New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, the lone tri-state holdout on the new CDC mask guidelines, those are some of the key reasons his indoor mask rule will stay a bit longer.

New Jersey now stands out as one of the few states to explicitly not adopt the CDC's new guidance on indoor masks. NBC New York's Ray Villeda reports.

New York City restaurateur Roni Mazumdar has some concerns about checking vaccination status, too.

"There's no clear-cut plan as to actually finding out who's vaccinated or not," he said. "To avoid any circumstances we want to make sure that we continue enforcing the masks, temperatures check and all the safety precautions until we all get to a very confident place."

But given all the devastation the pandemic has wreaked over the last 14 months, Mazumdar says he couldn't be more excited about the direction the city is heading.

"It means we'll finally be able to have real business. It means after a long time, we can all breathe a little bit. It means that New York is coming back," Mazumdar said.

In addition to the indoor mask change in New York Wednesday, all percentage-based capacity limits for eateries, retail, salons, gyms, museums, theaters and offices will be lifted tri-statewide. By the end of May, there will be no more curfew for indoor dining. Cuomo lifted the same curfew for the outdoors on Monday.

ny grand reopening
Consider Wednesday the grand reopening of New York state.

Ultimately, officials hope the increasing share of fully vaccinated New Yorkers will eventually inspire more confidence in those who live here and those who visit to go about their lives with a greater sense of normalcy than they've had in a year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio added another carrot to his slate of vaccination incentives Tuesday -- free Nets merchandise for those who get dosed at the city's newest mobile vaccine truck, which will debut across from Barclays Center (140 Flatbush Avenue) on May 22 and serve New Yorkers age 12 and up.

Up to 100 free playoff tickets will also be made available to fully vaccinated fans in 33 city neighborhoods identified by the Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity via lottery. Additional details will be provided in the coming days, the Nets said.

Cuomo announced a day ago that the Nets and Knicks will both reserve 50% of seats at home playoff games for fully vaccinated fans, who will not have to wear masks or socially distance at those events.

According to the governor, the whole point of the CDC's changed guidance and New York's looming one is to show that there are benefits to being vaccinated. Masks will still be required for fully vaccinated people in higher-risk indoor settings like on subways, buses, planes and in healthcare settings, schools and correctional facilities until more are vaccinated.

Among those benefits: A fractional chance of getting COVID, not transmitting the disease to others and the freedom to engage in more once-normal activities, he says.

According to infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, the latest studies show vaccines prove to be effective in preventing further spread of COVID-19 and its variants, in addition to preventing serious illnesses that lead to hospitalization or death.

Addressing the breakthrough infections (when vaccinated people test positive for COVID-19) in the New York Yankees, Fauci said it's still good news because eight out of nine were asymptomatic and the likelihood of transmission is still "exceedingly low."

"Low likelihood of transmission, low likelihood of getting infected. When you do get infected, chances are you're going to be without symptoms," Fauci explained on "All In With Chris Hayes" Monday. "That was the accumulating scientific data that prompted the CDC to make that recommendation that when people are vaccinated, they can feel safe that they are not going to get infected, whether they're outdoors or indoors."

Fauci added that it's reasonable for business owners to make their own judgment calls as to whether masks should be required in their establishments. Still, he wanted the message to be clear for anyone worrying that they will transmit the virus to people who are unvaccinated: "The risk is extremely low of getting infected, of getting sick or of transmitting it to anybody else, full stop."

Nationally, more than 47% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, according to the latest CDC data. That number drops to 44.2% when those age 12 and up are taken into account. Nearly three-quarters of the U.S. population age 65-plus are fully immunized.

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