NEW YORK — Los Angeles County and other coronavirus hot spots are reimposing mask mandates, but the Big Apple, the epicenter of last year’s nightmare, is a glaring exception as cases climb as a result of the fast-moving delta strain.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is bucking calls to require face coverings again. He said that would penalize people who have been vaccinated and sow doubt in the minds of those who might come forward.
“People need to get vaccinated, period. Nothing will do what vaccination will do,” Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, told reporters Thursday. “Are we really going to let ourselves fall back to where we were? Do you really want to see the world shut down again? I mean, let’s get serious. People have to get vaccinated.”
Jim Wong, a consultant from Brooklyn, isn’t so sure about the mayor’s approach. He said the city is in a precarious spot and it’s OK to rely on multiple layers of protection.
“I think this delta thing is going to be a problem. You’ve got people out here who think it’s done. They’re not wearing their mask, they’re not properly social distancing. You never know which way it’s going to go,” he told The Washington Times while waiting for Macy’s Herald Square to open. “I think he should go back to the mask rule — especially indoors.”
Mr. de Blasio’s quandary reflects a national conversation.
Berkeley, California, joined Los Angeles County in reimposing mask mandates. Rules are also being discussed in Arkansas and Missouri, where cases are flaring, though federal officials worry that mask mandates would undercut messaging on the power of vaccines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t announced changes to its mask guidance to cope with the delta variant. Officials are reportedly considering tweaks, and the Biden administration on Thursday announced a $1.6 billion investment in an alternate tool — testing — to combat the virus in congregate centers such as prisons, drug rehabilitation centers and homeless shelters.
Republican doctors on Capitol Hill said requiring masks for people whose bodies are producing antibodies would run counter to the science of COVID-19.
“We don’t need masks if you’ve had the vaccine or natural immunity,” said Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican.
Masks are required on the subway and public transportation in New York City, though many go maskless in shops or the Starbucks locations that dot the city. Face coverings are relatively rare on the street. Some opt for the under-chin method.
Five family members visiting from Guatemala said they were taken aback by the lack of face coverings in the city.
“It’s actually very concerning for us that no one is wearing a mask. In our home country, delta is not very present. But in the U.S., it is very present and we don’t want to get it and take it back home,” said Andres Perdomo, who got the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine with his mother, father and two siblings at Grand Central Terminal because it’s hard to get doses back home.
Mr. de Blasio is losing patience with vaccine holdouts.
He recently announced plans to mandate vaccines or weekly testing for workers in public hospitals and clinics by August. It’s a sign he is willing to take more stringent measures after relying on sports tickets and prizes to get people vaccinated. He said he is considering requiring vaccines for tens of thousands of additional city workers but is “not there yet.”
The city is administering an average of 14,000 shots per day, a 50% decline from the 28,000 per day a month ago and far below the mid-April peak of 100,000 per day. At the same time, reported infections have risen from about 200 to 600 per day. The delta variant accounts for about 7 in 10 cases in the city.
The figures make some folks skittish about “breakthrough” infections among the vaccinated or harm to children younger than 12 and immunocompromised people who aren’t protected by the vaccines.
City Council member Mark Levine of Manhattan is calling on the administration to reimpose the indoor mask mandate regardless of vaccination status, citing comparable places where hospitalizations began to increase weeks after cases were diagnosed.
Mr. de Blasio said he recognizes the value of masks but they are not “the root of the problem.”
“I think he realizes masks are a Band-Aid. Only vaccines will let us control this virus,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.
About 58% of the city population have received one shot, and 54% are fully vaccinated. The rate is slightly above the national average. It gives officials hope that they will avoid the disaster that befell the city in spring 2020 when hospital morgues in Queens overflowed and the steady din of ambulance sirens was interrupted only by people cheering hospital workers at dusk from their windows.
Mr. Wong said he is hopeful that the dark days won’t return.
“But the way that everybody’s mindset is with not wearing a mask and going carefree, it might,” he said.
Officials still expect fewer hospitalizations and deaths but insist that the unvaccinated are taking big risks.
A maskless Juan Pablo Toledo, who visited from Guadalajara, Mexico, with his wife, Ali, and 13-year-old daughter, Isabella, said he felt safe in New York because of high rates of vaccination compared to back home, where he’s concerned about the reliability of cold-chain storage and “fake news” that’s holding back vaccine uptake.
“We see the graphics about the delta — it’s not that lethal if you are already vaccinated. So I think the solution is getting vaccinated,” he said, noting they were going to get Isabella a Pfizer shot in New York because it is approved in the U.S. for ages 12 and older.
Despite progress, scientists say about 70%-90% vaccination in a given area is needed to wrangle the virus outright, so the unvaccinated don’t fill hospitals and the virus doesn’t evolve into something even worse.
Mr. Caplan thinks employers might need to get tougher with holdouts in New York and elsewhere.
“In my view, the city — and whole nation — has set itself up for a horrible failure by focusing on the rights of the unvaccinated rather than the need to stop the harms of the pandemic for everyone by mandating vaccinated for more people,” he said.
There are disparities in which New Yorkers get vaccinated. Only a third of Black residents have received at least one dose, and only 49% of Bronx residents have received a shot, making it the only borough where less than half the population has sought a vaccine.
Relatively wealthy Manhattan leads the way in vaccination rates. Seven in 10 people have received a dose.
Brian Dorgler, who lives in Manhattan, was among those who trickled into the Grand Central Terminal clinic around lunchtime on Thursday. He is the type of New Yorker Mr. de Blasio is trying to reach as the city regains its economic footing and plans a big Central Park concert on Aug. 21 to celebrate its progress.
Mr. Dorgler said his doctor told him the shot wasn’t “completely necessary” for him earlier in the pandemic — he is 27 — but he works in real estate and meets with clients.
“I don’t want to lie to them [or] say I didn’t get it,” he said. “Now, we’re meeting in person.”