Relief, reluctance and confusion: New Yorkers react to mask-free guidance

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

When the CDC announced this week that people fully vaccinated against Covid-19 mostly didn’t have to wear masks indoors, many Americans saw this news as cause for celebration, feeling a sense of freedom after 15 months of itchy and cumbersome face coverings.

But in New York City, which was the US’s first coronavirus hotspot last spring, not everyone was rushing to rip off their masks, despite the official OK to do so.

Related: City identifies X factor to overcome vaccine hesitancy: free beer

Some were happy to ditch face coverings, but were confused by the guidance. Others, regardless of their vaccination status, said they wouldn’t necessarily do so if state guidelines on indoor masking loosened.

“My thing is, it’s about freedom,” said Billy Heeran, owner of the Harbor Light Pub in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York City. “It should have happened a little while ago.”

If mask restrictions further loosened, Heeran said, those in his bar “have every right” to choose whether they sport face coverings. Heeran, 43, said “absolutely not” when asked if he would question bar patrons about their vaccination status.

Still, it was unclear to Heeran what the CDC guidance actually means for New Yorkers.

“It’s just kind of confusing to everybody if the president of the United States went on air and said ‘You don’t have to wear your mask any more if you’re vaccinated,’ but the governor now is telling you you still have to wear a mask … So, who’s in charge?

“I just went to a bank without a mask and I was told I have to put a mask on,” he said. “If the federal government is telling you not to wear a mask any more, why do I have to wear a mask walking into a bank?”

Joseph Jennings, 82, said he had been stuck at home since the pandemic began, leaving only for doctor’s appointments and other essential matters. “I wear my mask when I go out,” said Jennings, who is fully vaccinated. “I just see masks as a precaution.”

He said he would “most likely” keep masking inside despite the guidance. Jennings, who frequently watches the news, said he wanted “to see how things go”.

Even though Jennings plans on wearing a mask, he hopes the revamped guidance could prompt a return to normalcy, including the full reopening of in-person services and activities at the Henry Street Settlement senior center, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Barber Herman James cuts a clients hair under a pergola in Central Park in New York City.
Barber Herman James cuts a clients hair under a pergola in Central Park in New York City. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

He misses the gym there, which he would patronize six days a week pre-pandemic. “When the center was open, I was going every day,” he said.

Henry Street Settlement sites will all require masks for the time being, an organization spokesperson said.

Camila Moreno, who is vaccinated, did not see the CDC’s announcement positively. “It just angers me, because how are you supposed to know who’s vaccinated?” said Moreno, 21.

Moreno, who was at Manhattan’s Washington Square Park on Friday with two friends, said that confusion and conflict might unfold if mask mandates vary from business to business. Even before the CDC announcement, some people took a scattershot approach.

Two days ago, an unmasked woman walked into Moreno’s masked workplace. The woman said not to worry, and that she didn’t need a mask because she was vaccinated, Moreno recalled.

“I feel like masks help contain disease” other than coronavirus, Moreno also said, expressing fear that suddenly, “masks are being pushed to the side”.

Allison Benguiat, also 21 and vaccinated, echoed friend Moreno’s concerns.

“It makes me uncomfortable,” Benguiat said, pointing out coronavirus’s disproportionate impact on persons of color and people of lesser means. “I think it’s too early to do this,” she said.

Melitza Roman, owner of Stiletto Goddess Nail Salon in the Bronx borough of New York City, said that for the time being, she would require masks even if the state loosened restrictions.

“We’ll just feel a little bit more comfortable if everyone wears their masks,” Roman said, adding, “We have elderly people who come get their nails done.”

Outside of work, Roman said of face coverings: “For me, personally, if I’m not required to wear the mask, I won’t wear it.” Roman said this would be her approach “unless I’m in a place where I really don’t know everyone”.

Roman is not vaccinated, expressing concern that it was “too soon for something to be out and ready”, but feels confident having always followed safety precautions.