With two weeks of the school year remaining, the school mask mandate for the city’s youngest students will be lifted June 13th because COVID-19 cases are “steadily falling,” Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday.
Children under five years old still cannot get vaccinated. But Adams said Thursday the declining rates of COVID meant the mask mandate for 2-to 4-year-olds could be lifted, while in the same statement urging all New Yorkers to wear masks indoors. The mandate was the last remaining for city students.
“I have always said that the science will guide us out of the pandemic, and because we have followed the data, which shows that cases are steadily falling, we‘ve beaten back the latest COVID-19 surge,” Adams said in a statement Thursday.
The mayor reiterated that schools have been among the safest places in the city for children and that, while masks will be optional, “we still strongly recommend that New Yorkers of all ages continue to wear masks indoors and we will continue to make masks available for any child or school staff member.”
The end of the mandate for younger kids at schools and early childhood settings comes months after the mandates for older students were lifted. City officials had said earlier that younger children remained at risk because they cannot be vaccinated. In April, the mandate was scheduled to lift until a surge in cases prompted the city to keep the policy in place. A group of parents sued the city over the continued mandate, arguing their kids were suffering from wearing masks, though there is no conclusive evidence that masks directly cause developmental issues.
The Department of Health referred questions to a Twitter thread by Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vance, who wrote Thursday “Cases have fallen since May 23, giving us confidence that we have passed the peak and we are heading into a safer environment.”
In mid-May, as the city’s risk level for COVID-19 was upgraded from medium to high amid increased cases, city officials recommended that “everyone age 2 and older wear a well-fitting mask in all public indoor settings, including at school and early childhood education programs, even if not required.”
Cases are as high now as they were in early February. About 730 New Yorkers are currently hospitalized, which is down from a peak of about 800 from about 10 days ago. The Department of Education’s COVID tracker shows 635 students and 219 staffers reported cases Wednesday.
The lifting of the mandate comes two days ahead of a June 15th meeting of the FDA’s advisory group Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee to review applications by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech for their pediatric vaccines for children 6 months to 4 years old.
“What’s the rush? We are on the verge of being able to protect these children by vaccinating them hopefully within the next few weeks, and I do not understand the urgency to drop the mandate today,” said Dr. Jesse Hackell, the head of the state American Academy of Pediatrics’s Chapter 3, which covers Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester.
Hackell pointed out that Adams’ statement lifting the mask mandate also recommends wearing masks.
“I mean, if there’s a reason to recommend it strongly, then there should be a reason to make sure it gets done,” Hackell said.
“We can’t vaccinate the kids as of today in that age group. But the next best step of protection is to have them masked,” he added. “And so I don’t understand.”
Nsikan Akpan contributed reporting.