During a typically busy week for Mayor Eric Adams, he met with model Gigi Hadid at the Netflix studio in Brooklyn. He visited a university to promote a new degree in video game design. He also toured the state capitol in Albany to push for an update on the mayor’s control of the school.
But as New York City entered a high risk level for the coronavirus, Mr Adams did not hold any public events to warn residents of the surge in cases.
Mr Adams insisted he would not reinstate the mandate for masks and vaccines, instead focusing on antiviral treatment and at-home testing.
While many U.S. cities long ago abandoned public health precautions, New York City and other Democratic-led cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia have taken a more cautious approach to fighting the virus wave. Now, even as cases and hospitalizations rise again, these cities may be as focused on returning to normalcy and personal responsibility as the rest of the country.
In New York, Mr. Adams did not warn about the city’s high risk levels, instead repeatedly stressing that his infection in April was mild, in part because he was taking the antiviral drug Paxlovid.
“I think the reason we got here and didn’t see drastic action is because we’ve done a fantastic job of telling people — vaccines, boosters,” Mr Adams told a recent news conference. “When I got hit with the coronavirus, it was just a scratchy throat. I was still able to exercise without any breathing problems and no pain.”
Mr. Adams, a Democrat who took office in January, appears to be weighing several factors: He is not calling for enforcement, as hospitalizations and deaths are rising more slowly than in previous waves, and because accepting already-weary restrictions could take a political toll the public, and because he worries about the impact on restaurants, tourism and the city’s economic recovery.
But some health experts have criticized the mayor’s approach and worry that allowing the virus to spread widely could hurt the city’s most vulnerable residents. They believe the city should reinstate requirements for masks and vaccines, but acknowledge that doing so would be politically difficult.
The city is now recording more than 4,000 cases a day, a number that could be much higher because most home tests are not counted in the official tally.As of Tuesday, more than 770 people in the city were hospitalized with the virus, with 84 in intensive care
Mr Adams said this week he did not plan to restore the mandate unless the hospital system reached a “state of emergency” or moved in that direction. The new alert system, approved by Mr Adams in March, recommends mask wearing in public indoor environments at current risk levels.
Health experts believe it will be too late by the time hospitals and health workers are overwhelmed. Some elected officials, such as Manhattan Borough President Mark Levin, support the reinstatement of mask-wearing rules in most public indoor settings.
“I want the city to be able to turn protections on and off as the outbreak spikes,” Mr Levine said. “I would like to see us do more now, work harder.”
A deputy mayor of Adams, community groups and disability advocates expressed strong support for mask mandates in indoor spaces during a conference call with Anne Williams-Isom Thursday, according to people who participated in the call. Ms Williams-Isom said she would pass their message on to the mayor.
Mr Adams’ approach mirrored the tone of other leaders, such as Gov. Kathy Hocher and President Biden, eager to emerge from the pandemic and focus on economic recovery. New Jersey Gov. Philip D. Murphy also refused to reinstate the mandate and lifted the mask mandate on New Jersey transit trains entering the city.
Ms. Hocher, who recently tested positive for the virus, has maintained a mask-wearing rule on public transportation, but has not set broader restrictions despite the surge in upstate New York. Ms Hocher faces additional political considerations – she is running for governor and needs support from the more conservative corners of the state.
Many business leaders have supported the mayor’s approach, including Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group.
“New Yorkers have demonstrated that they have a good sense of following safety protocols, including wearing masks where appropriate,” she said. “Reversing the progress made in reopening cities will be a blow to the recovery, but it also doesn’t seem necessary at this point.”
The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vassan, issued an order Monday strongly recommending that all residents wear medical-grade masks in offices, grocery stores, schools and other public indoor spaces across the city. A day later, he announced that the city had reached a high alert level, triggered by a rise in hospitalizations.
Mr Adams said the city was adapting to a “new normal” as the variants emerged.
“If every variant comes along, we’re going to get into the idea of a shutdown, we’re going to panic, and we’re not going to operate like a city,” Adams said Wednesday.
But former Mayor Bill de Blasio and his health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, stayed on during the first few months of the Adams administration and instituted a new alert system in March, They made public comments encouraging Mr Adams to be ready to return to the US. authorized.
“I would say it’s a friendly reminder to keep these powerful tools available,” Mr. de Blasio said in a radio interview last week. “You may need them soon.”
Mr. de Blasio, who oversaw the city’s response during the worst wave of the virus, holds virtual virus briefings almost daily, sometimes inviting outside health experts such as a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia’s Mailman College Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, Ph.D., Public Health, and Celine Gounder, Ph.D., an infectious disease specialist at New York University. He has rolled out some of the most aggressive health measures in the country, including a vaccine mandate still in place for urban workers and private employers.
Mr. Adams relied on a handful of key advisers to shape his virus response: Dr. Vassan, an epidemiologist who previously led a mental health nonprofit; Dr. Mitchell Katz, head of the city’s hospital system; Ms. Williams-Isom, Deputy Mayor; Dan Weisberg, First Deputy Principal; and Dr. Ted Long, Executive Director of the City’s Test and Trace Corps. The group discusses the latest data via a virtual conference call almost every morning.
Mr Adams said the message from hospital and school leaders was clear: “They’re all saying the same thing. They said, ‘Listen, we got this. We’re not overwhelmed.'”
But with each wave of new cases in the city, elected officials and New Yorkers often develop a “collective amnesia” about how to respond, former health commissioner Dr. Chokshi said in a recent interview.
“People will say, ‘Well, it’s just that cases are going up, let’s see what happens with hospitalizations,'” he said. “For me, as someone who knows this well, especially epidemiology, it’s hard not to get your head around when you feel the public, and in many cases, the political conversation coming into these circles Blast. You’re like, ‘Wow, when are we going to learn.'”
Some health experts agree that unless health systems are severely overburdened, it will be difficult to restore broad mandates at this point in the pandemic. At the same time, having an alert system but not implementing its recommendations can confuse the public and erode trust, especially if the changes are not carefully explained.
“It definitely makes sense to pick a set of metrics and use that to decide what steps you’re going to take,” said Dr. Jay Varma, who served as a senior health advisor to Mr. de Blasio. “There’s value in publishing weather forecasts, but you have to be clear about how you’re using it.”
Several experts said the lack of authority should lead the Adams administration to do more to convince people of the seriousness of the current situation, even among those who are vaccinated and who are not personally afraid of dying from the virus. For example, an updated public health campaign could focus on the importance of wearing masks to protect vulnerable populations, the risk of long-term Covid, or the increased risk of cardiovascular disease after Covid-19.
Mr. Adams has focused on providing free home delivery of antiviral drugs, such as Paxlovid, and distributing millions of home tests to public school students, as well as libraries and museums. His government says it has distributed 35,000 antiviral treatments and avoided nearly 2,000 hospitalizations.
The city leads the nation in vaccination rates, but booster rates have stalled. An estimated 88% of adults in the city are fully vaccinated; only 46% received booster doses.
New Yorkers with disabilities and weakened immune systems fear the city’s new approach won’t keep them safe. Emily Ladau, a disability rights advocate who lives on Long Island and frequently visits the city, said very few people wear masks because the mayor has not clearly communicated that masks are important.
“There’s a big difference between wearing a mask and a lockdown,” she said. “I don’t think it should be that hard to wear a mask to protect people around you.”
Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Otterman and Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.