On the first day New York City eased some masking and proof-of-vaccine mandates, Mayor Eric Adams wound his way through the East Village with a marveling eye and appetite for its offerings.
He chatted with restaurant owners and workers about their business and life stories. He dined on (vegetarian) borscht at an East Village mainstay alongside lawmakers and expressed interest in detoxing at a Russian Turkish bathhouse. Dressed in a blue suit and paisley tie, the mayor even attempted to ride a skateboard.
Behind every interaction was a mayor who sought to rally New Yorkers behind the next chapter in the pandemic, which he said he hopes will mark a return to normalcy. For the first time since the reopening of city schools, children ages 5 and older and teachers were given the option of removing their masks, while restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues were no longer required by law to check proof-of-vaccination for patrons.
As he did last week, Adams brushed back criticism from some public health experts that relieving the proof-of-vaccination mandate, known as Key2NYC, was premature given the potential for a resurgence and a new variant.
“We want our city to come back,” he said. “I got to get my businesses open. I have to get people back in their offices.”
Although some have also argued that the city’s recovery has been moving apace even amid the restrictions, the mayor insisted that Monday’s milestone is critical.
“I keep saying this over and over again. Our prosperity is going to be tied to symbolism and substance,” Adams said. “The symbolism is that we felt as if our city was closed.”
He later touted the policy for spurring tourism, one of the city’s biggest economic drivers. Following his outing in the East Village, he headed to the Financial District, where he spoke to Goldman Sachs workers about returning to the office, and then to the Javits Center, where he addressed participants at a restaurant industry trade event. In the evening, he was scheduled to greet jazz concertgoers at the Blue Note.
Restaurant owners largely expressed support for lifting the mandate after a costly pandemic, during which the New York City Hospitality Alliance said thousands of eateries have shuttered.
The mayor had lunch at Veselka with several elected officials, including Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and the area’s City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, along with representatives from the Ukrainian community.
Many restaurant owners said that patrons had gotten accustomed to showing their vaccine cards.
“New Yorkers have just been incredibly cooperative,” said Tom Birchard, co-owner of Veselka, the Ukrainian diner on Second Avenue that has been inundated with customers since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week.
However, he said, he supported the mayor’s decision.
“It's the elimination of one more impediment of getting back to normal business,” he said. “I trust that the mayor and that the city's made this decision based on good, solid epidemiological science, so I’m comfortable.”
Barry Primus, a longtime East Village resident, said he was “ambivalent” about the new policy.
“I'm a little bit nervous about it,” he said, before adding, “I understand why they're doing it.”
Similarly, Ken Davis, who was having lunch outdoors at Veselka, said, “What happens when the next mutation happens?”
But he also expressed a sense that the rollback was inevitable.
“Everyone's tired of it,” Davis said of the restrictions. “You might as well go with it.”
Dr. Jay Varma, who served as the top health advisor under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, has been outspoken with criticism of Adams’ decision.
On Monday, Varma tweeted, “Celebrating the removal of #Key2NYC requires you to believe *against all evidence* that feasible, acceptable, affordable, beneficial #COVID19 protections are bad for business, rather than [the] virus's ability to cause unpredictably large surges of illness & death.”
Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate and gubernatorial candidate, and Liz Krueger, a Manhattan state senator, were among the elected officials who last week opposed the removal of Key2NYC.
“Vaccine requirements are helping New Yorkers both be safe and feel safe as they patronize local businesses, and we should only move forward only in a way that ensures we don’t go backward,” Williams said. “Lifting Key2NYC sends the wrong message at the wrong time.”
New York City is seeing roughly 600 daily cases, a steep drop from the omicron surge of 44,000 cases per day in January, but still three times higher than the seven-day average last summer.
Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, a taco bar, greeted the mayor as he entered. She later spoke of how the rollback reflected the changing psyche of New Yorkers. As a caterer, she said she had noticed the return of office parties.
“We can already see that people are feeling a little bit more comfortable coming out,” she said.
“It’s really the moment we’re at,” she added.
Ataur Rahman, the general manager of a Dallas BBQ, estimated that business had been down as much as 30% since Key2NYC was introduced last August.
“We did takeout and we had a patio for them, but still, you know, it's winter, so they want to sit inside,” he said.
Minutes earlier, Rahman, who started working nearly 30 years ago as a cashier at the restaurant, thanked the mayor for lifting the vaccine restriction, describing it as “the biggest help we need right now.”
At the same time, there were signs that people were not ready to let their guard down.
Rahman was among the restaurant workers who still wore a mask even though Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted that requirement for most public settings last month.
“It's my personal choice,” he said. “I feel like I want to wear a mask as long as I can.”