On Wednesday, New York State removed most capacity restrictions from businesses statewide and adopted federal guidelines that allow people who have been vaccinated to largely eschew masks, indoors and out in most situations. New York City businesses, and the workers who make them run, have had to navigate shifting regulations from the city and state since the start of the pandemic. For many of those businesses, the struggle for safety was paired with the struggle for solvency.
Most of those regulations came to an end on Wednesday, when the state removed most capacity restrictions from businesses statewide and adopted federal guidelines that allow people who have been vaccinated to largely eschew masks, indoors and out, in most situations. The reaction from many city dwellers was cautious, after more than a year in which the city’s known virus death toll climbed to more than 33,000 people. Workers at many businesses around the five boroughs expressed similar reluctance to leap back into normal behavior.
Chris Polanco, 32, a clerk at Melrose Hardware in the Bronx, said he will keep his mask and the plastic curtain in front of the cash register and would continue asking people to mask up in his store, offering masks to people who do not have them. “You never know if they’re vaccinated or not, unless they have their papers, and there are forgeries,” Mr. Polanco said. Caution also prevailed in much of the Corona neighborhood of Queens, one of the hardest-hit areas in the country. Irene DeBenedittis owns Leo’s Latticini, an Italian deli there. She said that even though she and her staff had been vaccinated she planned to keep requiring masks, as a courtesy and a precaution.
“I am a bit confused about the rules, and also concerned about the customer,” Ms. DeBenedittis said. “For now, we are keeping the mask on so we feel safe and our customers feel safe too.” Representatives for far larger groups of workers also said they planned to move slowly. Robert W. Newell Jr., the president of a union that represents 17,000 workers, mainly in supermarkets and food production, said, “I’ve asked everyone to keep their masks on, at least for another couple of weeks.” One of the city’s largest employers, its municipal government, will also keep masks, for now, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday morning.
Of course, it is difficult to distinguish who has and has not been vaccinated. “Vaccine passports” like New York State’s Excelsior Pass are not widely in use, and many consider a vaccine honor code flimsy. Even if proof of vaccination is bolstered somehow, it may be harder for individual business owners to enforce mask rules when they are no longer universal. Rebecca Robertson, executive director of the Park Avenue Armory, said the indoor performance venue would retain its strict masking policy for Wednesday’s opening night performance of “Afterwardsness,” a modern dance piece in which patrons sit nine feet apart.
The venue plans to continue to require all audience members to wear masks for the foreseeable future. Ms. Robertson noted that the state continues to strongly recommend masking when a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people are together indoors, which to her is just a shade below a requirement. “If the government says to you it is strongly recommended, for us, it’s like a mandate,” Ms. Robertson said. Not all businesses were so hesitant — some have spurned the rules for much of the pandemic.
One of them is Mac’s Public House, a Staten Island tavern that became a symbol of much of the borough’s defiance to virus regulations when it refused to follow the governor’s curfew and indoor dining bans last year. The bar lost its liquor license and was told to close, but kept serving customers indoors, channeling the defiance that many Staten Islanders held for the regulations. Danny Presti, Mac’s manager, was arrested twice, and the bar was finally closed down. On Wednesday Mr. Presti seethed as nearby restaurants and bars reopened while Mac’s remained padlocked. “It’s frustrating,” Mr. Presti said. “It’s not like I was this lifelong criminal, it was all for businesses, bringing attention to the situation.”