As the omicron variant of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wane, mask and vaccine restrictions are starting to lift around the country, even in areas that were previously known for their stringent COVID requirements, like New York City and Los Angeles.
On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its COVID-19 guidance, with a new map showing areas of the country that remain under high alert (recommended masking and other precautions), medium alert (masking might be recommended if you are a high-risk individual), and low risk (which does not recommend masking for indoor or outdoor businesses and schools). More than 70% of the country is now in a low-risk zone, meaning that the CDC only recommends masking up for 30% of the U.S. population.
But the CDC warns that these new guidelines might not last forever as COVID-19 has not yet entered the endemic stage, and might not until the following year, Moderna executives predict.
"None of us know what the future holds for us and for this virus," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a call with reporters on Friday. "And we need to be prepared and we need to be ready for whatever comes next. We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when our levels are low, and then have the ability to reach for them again if things get worse in the future."
As the CDC begins to relax precautionary guidelines, the rest of the country is following suit. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams announced Sunday that the city will be lifting its proof of vaccination requirements for employees and customers at indoor businesses, dining and events starting March 7, as long as cases continue to trend downward.
“We need to continue to be smart and safe, and modify mandates as COVID risks are reduced,” Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance said in a statement emailed to Nation’s Restaurant News. “Removing proof of vaccination for indoor dining and drinking will be very welcome news to many restaurants and bars, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some businesses want to voluntarily keep it in place.”
Other cities following similar guidelines include Atlanta, which ended its citywide indoor mask mandate on Friday shortly after the CDC released its updated guidelines. Los Angeles ended its indoor mask mandate last Wednesday and Chicago lifted its vaccination proof and indoor mask mandates on Monday following the CDC update.
“I think [this ease of restrictions] will lift some burden from businesses because they’re not going to have to track these things or have to deal with pushback on compliance from people anymore,” David Miller, labor and employment attorney with Bryant Miller Olive P.A. told Nation’s Restaurant News. “However, I do think business owners will be advised to permit people to remain masked if they want to.”
Of course, not all businesses will want to rip the COVID restrictions Band-Aid off right now. Miller said that it’s very location-specific and that in some areas like Miami, for example, they have not had mandates for quite some time but unmasked people will still get dirty looks from other patrons when they walk into a restaurant because the culture is still majority COVID-compliant.
Businesses should also be prepared if guidance changes, if, for example, another variant comes along.
“Follow the law and know your market and customers,” Miller said. “Any good restaurant manager is going to know his clientele [and their stance on masking] like the back of his hand.”
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