Wearing masks indoors is about to get more flexible as Americans enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new mask guidance on Friday that relaxes the indoor recommendations for face coverings in nearly 70% of the country. Governors in the tri-state area had already begun rolling back some mask measures earlier this month, but the new rules could mean the end of this particular COVID-19 protocol for places like schools.
Under the revised guidelines, indoor masking in counties is based on a combination of elevated case rates and abundant COVID-19 hospitalizations. Regions get binned into high-, medium- and low-risk through this rubric known as the "COVID-19 Community Level," which updates in real time according to an area’s seven-day averages for cases and new hospitalizations as well as its hospital capacity. That means places will have more flexibility to drop mask requirements whenever COVID-19 cases cool off, but then bring them back during resurgences.
All five boroughs of New York City, Long Island and Westchester are now considered at low risk for severe disease
“This updated approach focuses on directing our prevention efforts towards protecting people at high risk for severe illness and preventing hospitals and healthcare systems from being overwhelmed,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Friday in a press briefing. “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 should things get worse in the future.”
The CDC now considers all five boroughs of New York City, Long Island and Westchester as at “low risk for severe disease” — meaning that its officials believe that vaccination and testing alone should be enough to keep the virus in check.
Most of northern New Jersey is also at low risk, with the exception of Union County, which is at "medium risk." That means older residents there and those who are immunocompromised should consult their doctors before setting their masks aside. People living in high-risk communities are recommended to keep those masks donned.
Here’s a searchable table with county-by-county risk levels for New York, as of Friday. Keep in mind that the risk levels will change over time as cases and severe disease ebb and flow in a region.
And here’s a similar table for New Jersey.
Before New York parents store away their kids’ masks, state and city health officials will need to announce whether they are adopting the new CDC guidance and ending mask mandates for schools. Gov. Kathy Hochul had already pledged to revisit the school mandate next week, after removing the mask-or-vaccine requirement for most indoor businesses earlier this month.
In a statement Friday evening, Hochul said the state is evaluating the new guidance.
“We will update New Yorkers on potential changes as we work through the details and coordinate with all stakeholders in our school communities across our state,” Hochul said in her statement.
Before the new guidance was issued, Hochul said she would re-evaluate whether masks should continue to be worn inside school classrooms by March 4.
Kate Smart, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Eric Adams, said their teams of doctors and health experts would examine the CDC guidance and make the recommendations that are best for the people of New York City. Friday morning, the Adams administration dropped face-covering requirements for outdoor activities at schools, but he would need state approval to lift the rule indoors.
"We have followed the science from the beginning, and we will continue to do just that to keep New Yorkers safe," Smart wrote in an email to Gothamist. "Mayor Adams has been clear that he is excited to reopen New York’s economy, but we will not make any premature decisions to jeopardize our recovery."
Earlier this month, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy rolled back the state’s mask mandate for schools, leaving it up to individual districts.