New York health officials have started whispering, mainly among themselves.
“July,” they are saying. “The masks might come off in July.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio didn’t quite commit to that in his COVID briefing on Thursday at City Hall. But he’s inching closer. “We want to hold the line through June,” he said. “So we’ll keep the masks on and do all the things we need to do. After that, we’ll be able to reassess.”
All politicians hate deadlines, especially deadlines that might get thrown back at them. So the mayor quickly retreated to his preferred message, touting the COVID vaccines, 6 million doses of which are now in the arms of New York City residents.
“We’re gonna have to keep the masks and restrictions in place until we’re 100% sure we’re out of the woods, and the best way to know we’re out of the woods is to see that vaccination numbers go up and up and up,” he said.
It’s easy for a New York mayor to ignore Texas and Florida and other far-off places where official COVID precautions hardly exist anymore. But de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are getting dump-the-masks pressure much closer to home. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, whose COVID numbers aren’t so different from New York’s, has announced that he’s lifting his state’s outdoor mask requirement on Monday, along with all other remaining COVID-19 business restrictions. The only exception: the indoor mask mandate. And its demise, Lamont hinted, may not be far behind.
All Cuomo has countered with so far is that New York’s museums and zoos can soon go to 50% capacity, movie theaters to 33% and large arenas like Madison Square Garden to 25%.
Yes, it can take a flowchart to keep all this straight. But outdoor masks are about to become the next big flashpoint in the long-running debate between COVID caution and COVID exhaustion.
Fourteen months into the shutdowns, New Yorkers are asking again: Do we really have to jog in face masks? If we can sit in an outdoor cafe and remove our masks when the food arrives, why do we have to slap them on again for the stroll back home?
A November study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases said maybe we don’t. It found that the odds of viral transmission are 18.7 times greater indoors than out. Instances of outdoor transmission are “probably lower” than 10%, co-author Nooshin Razani said.
Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seems to be softening on this one. “Masks may not be necessary when you are outside by yourself away from others or with people who live in your household,” the latest CDC guidance suggests. And more softening could be on the way.
“We’ll be looking at the outdoor masking question,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky told NBC, “but also in the context of the fact that we still have people who are dying of COVID-19.”
So it all comes down to numbers again. And in New York at least, most of them are looking relatively cheery, as cheery as can be expected during a world-changing pandemic.
Hospitalizations keep dropping, down another 15% in the past two weeks. In all of New York state, 3,570 COVID patients were in the hospital on Thursday. That’s still a lot of sick people, but it’s a number the health system can handle without much strain.
The state’s COVID death count is also down. It hit 1,000 a day last April and 200 a day in January. That number has now slipped below 100 a day, and it’s ducked below 50 a couple of times. Again, it’s still a terrible toll for a disease that didn’t even exist a year and a half ago. But if you believe in numbers, these are definitely heading the right way.
Still worrisome: New York state’s 6,000 new cases a day. While that’s way down from 20,000 just after the Christmas and New Year, all those COVID vaccines haven’t pushed the case count anywhere near where it needs to be.
This week, the city’s last remaining COVID field hospital, the South Beach Psychiatric Center on Staten Island, sent its last coronavirus patient home. Doctors and nurses there were busy in two waves, treating 217 patients in April and May and another 803 between Thanksgiving and this week.
A woman named Deborah Bailey came rolling out on a stretcher with her fists in the air. A hundred staffers stood outside the hospital and applauded.
“You saved people’s lives,” Dr. Brahim Ardolic, executive director of Staten Island University Hospital, told the staffers, according to the Staten Island Advance. “You made sure that people got what they needed while they were actually here. There are 1,000 human beings whose lives would have been different if it wasn’t for all you did in the past 13 months.”
The doctor had hope in his voice. But as he spoke, he was still wearing a face mask.
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.