New York City restaurants, gyms, cultural institutions and entertainment venues will no longer have to ask indoor customers for proof of vaccination starting on Monday, Mayor Eric Adams said Friday.

At the same time, the mayor said that the city’s lawyers had determined that businesses and venues, including restaurants, are legally entitled to deny service to unvaccinated individuals should they elect to keep the policy known as Key2NYC. Separate mandates will remain in place for public and private employees.

The Friday announcement in Times Square, which included the lifting of masks in city schools, comes as Adams tries to hasten a return to normalcy in New York City. Since taking office, the mayor has acted as a cheerleader for businesses and has implored workers to return to the office. He has called the removal of masks a “symbol” that the city is back.

Prior to the press conference, the mayor chatted with several tourists, asking them where they had traveled from. To each of them, he had one simple message: “Spend money.”

The news of a policy change was not a surprise. Adams on Sunday said he would seek to ease restrictions next week so long as cases did not rise.

“COVID is still here, but we are beating it back,” he said Friday, standing at a podium at Duffy Square, before reporters and a handful of tourists.

“It's time to open our city and get the economy back operating,” he later added.

“COVID is still here, but we are beating it back ... It's time to open our city and get the economy back operating."

Mayor Eric Adams

The city is also introducing a color-coded alert system that officials say will track the community spread of coronavirus and serve as a public health alert system. There are four colors and levels, ranging from green for low community spread to red for very high spread. The categories are based on indicators developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under the new system, the city health department is currently classifying the area as experiencing low spread. However, the CDC labeled all five boroughs as medium risk on Thursday in its latest batch of data. (Update: The risk levels dropped back to low by Friday afternoon). The seven-day average of daily cases is now around 600, far below the omicron peak of around 44,000 cases in early January, but about three times higher than the lull last summer.

A high level of spread — or orange alert — would prompt a return to face masks in all public indoor settings. The system provides a way for the public to anticipate when more restrictions might be coming.

Some public health experts have questioned the timing of the mayor’s decision to end Key2NYC, which has been credited for incentivizing vaccination and providing a layer of protection for busy indoor settings.

Dr. Jay Varma, the top health advisor under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, urged Adams to keep the policy in interviews with reporters and in an op-ed piece published Thursday in The Daily News. He argued that many New Yorkers have become accustomed to Key2NYC and that ending the policy would make it more difficult to reinstate, should a new surge or variant occur.

“The mayor has invoked a concern about making the city seem like it needs to be back to normal,” Varma told Gothamist on Thursday. “But in my mind, all of that has to be weighed against what we've seen over the past two years.”

“What impairs business is the illness and death that comes from the virus,” he added. Nearly 40,000 city residents have died from COVID-19, including nearly 5,100 fatalities in the 100 days since the omicron variant was first announced globally.

“What impairs business is the illness and death that comes from the virus."

Dr. Jay Varma, former top health advisor

City restaurant owners, who have struggled to survive during the pandemic, have largely embraced the mayor’s decision. Although many said New Yorkers had become comfortable with vaccine mandates, some criticized the policy for slowing the return of tourism. Others said they are wary about the possibility that cases could once again rise.

On Friday, Adams brushed back skepticism over whether it was too soon to peel back restrictions.

“Why aren’t we celebrating this? We’ve been waiting for this day for so long,” he said. “I’m a yea-sayer, not a naysayer.”

“We are winning,” he added.