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New York City Ends Private Employer Vaccine Mandate and Pushes Boosters

New York City will no longer mandate that private employers require all of their workers to be vaccinated for Covid-19, and children will no longer have to be vaccinated in order to participate in sports or other after-school activities, Mayor Eric Adams announced on Tuesday, as he continued to roll back restrictions that had defined an earlier stage of the pandemic.

With the potent new bivalent boosters now available, and now that 89 percent of city residents, including children, had received at least one dose of a vaccine, Mr. Adams said it was time to usher in a new stage of flexibility for parents and businesses, although he left a mandate for city workers in place.

“It’s time to move on to the next level of fortifying our city,” he said.

But Mr. Adams stopped short of agreeing with President Biden’s assertion on Sunday that the pandemic was over — a remark, made by Mr. Biden during an interview on “60 Minutes,” that caused vaccine-maker stocks to slide on Wall Street and generated pushback from experts. Instead, Mr. Adams said that Covid was a tricky opponent and that he didn’t know what was on the horizon.

“I think that the most scary part of the pandemic may be in our rearview mirror,” the mayor said. “But there’s a possibility of another variant and we have to move in a very strategic, smart way.”

Under Mr. Adams, New York — once notably more Covid-cautious than most of the nation — has gone mainstream. Masking is now optional everywhere except at health care centers and nursing homes. Vaccination was once required for people to eat inside restaurants. But starting on Nov. 1, some 184,000 private businesses, including restaurants, will no longer have to check workers’ vaccine cards. Health care workers, however, are still required to be vaccinated under a state rule.

Mr. Adams received the bivalent booster live on camera on Tuesday morning at City Hall in Lower Manhattan, and announced a new campaign to encourage New Yorkers to get boosted.

“We think it’s imperative to send the right message and lead by example, as I’m doing today by getting my booster shot,” he said.

Some public health experts and disability advocates have criticized local and federal officials for removing public health measures at a time when more than 400 Americans are dying from the coronavirus every day and many more remain seriously ill from long Covid. In the city, case numbers are lower than they were this summer, at about 1,900 new cases per day, but they began to rise gradually again after school started.

Official city figures are a major undercount, as they do not include at-home tests. The one city-run institution that does record many at-home tests — the public schools — has seen a more significant rise in cases in recent days. About 1,800 cases were recorded in New York City public schools alone on Monday.

City officials argue that with vaccination and treatments like Paxlovid, as well as continued masking and isolation rules for those with Covid, case numbers are no longer a reliable guide to the risks that Covid-19 poses. But while overall vaccination rates in the city are high, the top-line numbers mask some broad disparities.

Like many across the nation, very few parents in the city have had their youngest children vaccinated. Only 1 percent of Hispanic children under the age of 5 have been fully vaccinated, compared with 4 percent of Asian children and 5 percent of white children. So few Black children under the age of 5 have been fully vaccinated that the city registers that rate as 0 percent.

Booster rates in the city have also stagnated, with only 40 percent of those who had completed their primary vaccine series getting a third or fourth dose. The city is hoping that the new booster, which is tailored toward the Omicron variants that are now circulating, will attract more people. Some New Yorkers did rush in to get the new shots: As of Sunday, 75,000 people had already gotten a bivalent booster dose in the city.

Among them was Whitney Hudson, a 35-year-old actress who lives in Washington Heights. She often has to take her mask off when the cameras start rolling at work, so she decided she would feel more comfortable doing so if she got the booster.

“I’m just trying to have the best protection I can heading into the fall and winter,” she said at Bellevue Hospital’s booster clinic last Tuesday.

The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, said that because federal pandemic funding was drying up, the city would not be able to offer the health infrastructure it used to, including vaccine pop-up clinics at schools and other venues. He said that families seeking boosters should rely on pediatrician offices, but many low-income families do not have easy access to them.

Dr. Vasan encouraged New Yorkers to book booster appointments on the city’s Vaccine Finder website. He said he understood many New Yorkers might be less afraid of the virus now, but he was hopeful that the updated boosters would slow transmission.

“The widespread adoption of this booster will help us continue to blunt whatever comes our way,” he said.

Dr. Vasan said the city would probably continue to remove additional restrictions in time, including the city worker vaccine mandate, as it entered a “glide path toward normal.”

The city worker vaccine mandate has led to the firings of at least 1,700 workers, including police officers. Patrick J. Lynch, the leader of a major police union, said his members should get their jobs back.

“This announcement is more proof that the vaccine mandate for New York City police officers is arbitrary, capricious and fundamentally irrational,” he said.

Last December, former Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled the vaccine mandate for employees at private businesses, the most far-reaching local measure in the United States at the time. The mandate applied to around 184,000 businesses of all sizes with employees who work on-site in New York City.

But Mr. Adams, who took office in January, chose not enforce the mandate and said it would become optional on Nov. 1. He also removed the city’s color-coded alert system, which let New Yorkers know when they faced a greater risk from the virus.

When asked on Tuesday if the city had any data on how well the private vaccine mandate had worked, he had a one-word answer: “No.”

Joe Rappaport, the executive director of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, criticized Mr. Adams’s move to end the private employer vaccine mandate, as well as Gov. Kathy Hochul’s removal of a mask mandate on public transit earlier this month.

“For immunocompromised people in particular, the mayor’s decision means they may encounter unvaccinated people more often, making workplaces and retail businesses less safe,” he said. “Along with the governor’s decision to lift the transit mask mandate, it puts them and all of us at greater risk.”

Julianne McShane contributed reporting.

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