train masks

RETURN OF THE MASK: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority July 20 announced that top staffers and volunteers would resume handing out masks in the subways and on trains amid a spike in coronavirus cases believed to have been caused by the Delta variant. Mayor de Blasio, however, rebuffed a call for a reinstatement of the city's indoor masking requirement, saying the focus should be on increase vaccinations.

A dramatic spike in coronavirus cases has prompted the Chairman of the City Council Health Committee to call for  reinstatement of the indoor-mask mandate as was recently done in Los Angeles after a bigger surge there.

"The daily caseload in New York City has tripled in the past week to over 500 a day, almost overwhelmingly driven by the highly contagious Delta variant," Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine said during a July 19 phone interview.

'Protect Our Recovery'

Asked if the mandating of masks might set back the city's efforts to reopen the economy, he replied, "In order to continue to open up our economy, we have to blunt this new wave, and I see a measure like mask-wearing as protecting our economic recovery."

While COVID cases are up considerably, local public-health officials have said that increase has not yet produced an uptick in deaths or hospitalizations on a scale that would require the return to indoor masking.

"Every expert I talk to expects hospitalizations to start increasing imminently, as they have everywhere else where they have seen similar circumstances," Mr. Levine said.

At the time he spoke, deaths nationally had spiked by 22 percent, close to 300 a day, although that's well below the average of 3,000 daily in January. In the city and the state, the daily death toll has remained in single digits.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has endorsed action by local governments, including Los Angeles, hit by a surge in cases to deviate from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

'Very Reasonable Step'

"In areas where there are low numbers of vaccinated people, where cases are rising, it's very reasonable for counties to take more mitigation measures, like the mask rules coming out of LA," he told ABC News. "And I anticipate that will happen in other parts of the country—and that's not contradictory to the guidance the CDC issued."

The day Mr. Levine sounded the alarm, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for all school staff, as well as students older than 2, to wear masks in school regardless of their vaccination status. The CDC has called for mask-wearing only by those who haven't been vaccinated.  

Last month, the World Health Organization issued a global advisory that fully vaccinated individuals should continue to wear masks and follow other virus protocols to slow the spread of the Delta variant first identified in India.

In May, both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio brought state and city policies in line with the CDC's, relying on the honor system.

The Mayor rejected Mr. Levine's call for a return to indoor masking shortly after the Councilman raised the issue.

Banking on Vaccine Rise

"No. Simple answer, no," Mr. de Blasio told reporters. "Right now, we've got, again, 4.8 million New Yorkers who have had at least one vaccine dose. That number grows by thousands and thousands of people every day. That's the ballgame. That's where we make the impact. The thing that actually stops COVID."

Mr. de Blasio said that masks "have value unquestionably, but masks are not going at the root of the problem; vaccination is."

Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi echoed that assessment, saying, "Look, the Delta variant is concerning, as we've talked about. It now makes up about 69 percent of the cases that we're sequencing. But our concern is primarily for people who remain unvaccinated, which is why the single-most-important thing that we can do to keep individuals, as well as our communities, our city safe, is to get as many people vaccinated as possible."

Dr. Chokshi added that "there are some settings where the mask mandate, particularly indoors, remains in effect. This includes public transit, it includes schools and other high-risk settings, like our congregate settings and in health-care facilities, and in those places, we do want people to continue wearing their masks regardless of their vaccination status."

Trouble Spot: Uniformed Staff

The debate over the mask mandate played out even as dozens of neighborhoods lagged behind the city's overall 58.1 percent vaccination rate, putting unvaccinated residents in those areas at a much-higher risk of infection.

The city's uniformed services also lag considerably behind the city vaccine rate.

It was not until July 22 that Mayor de Blasio met his June 30 target of inoculating 70 percent of the city's population. Governor Cuomo last month announced the state had met that target.

"This is an extremely dangerous time to not be vaccinated in New York City, so our first message has to be to implore everyone who has not gotten the vaccine to do so immediately," said Mr. Levine, who recently won the Democratic nomination for Manhattan Borough President. "But we are going to need to take additional measures to protect people in crowded indoor settings, even those that are vaccinated where there is evidence the virus can transmit."

Doesn't Trust Honor System

He cited "children who can't get vaccinated, people that are immune-compromised," as among the most-vulnerable. He said he was also concerned about the reliability of the honor system, remarking that it put workers at risk who "will spend all day potentially being exposed to people with the virus. They are working at checkouts at supermarkets, taking tickets at a movie theater."

Mr. Levine said it was his impression that the rates of mask usage were "dropping noticeably in delis, in subways. Informally, I would say we are seeing probably 30 percent of people not wearing masks on the subway."

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