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Cities roll back restaurant vaccine mandates as omicron sputters

Chicago, New York, Seattle and a number of other jurisdictions are modifying the safety protocols. But masks are not disappearing.
Photograph: Shutterstock

New York City, Los Angeles County, Seattle and Chicago are joining the parade of jurisdictions that have modified their vaccination requirements for entering eating or drinking places, underscoring how the omicron surge’s impact on restaurants is waning.

Their recent announcements of an adjustment in safety protocols follow earlier moves by Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., Minneapolis and Boston, among other areas. 

The flurry of activity comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to change its guidance on wearing facemasks.  According to many voiced expectations, the federal agency will temper its advisory to allow customers to drop face coverings in more situations.

But neither mask nor vaccination mandates are disappearing entirely.

The new protocols that take effect in Los Angeles County on Feb. 25, for example, essentially allow guests of bars and other indoor public venues to drop their masks, but only if they can prove they’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. If not, they’re denied entry unless they can prove they’ve tested negative for the illness. The same holds true for employees.

Results from a PCR test—an indication of coronavirus actually being present—must be no more than two days old. An instant test, which detects the antibodies that fight COVID, must be no more than a day old.  

The county is giving businesses a choice of whom they want to excuse from the current across-the-board mask mandate. Operations can drop the requirement just for vaccinated guests, or for vaccinated workers as well as inoculated customers.

Los Angeles County’s regulations applied to bars and other drinking places, but not restaurants. Customers and employees of restaurants in the city of Los Angeles, a distinct jurisdiction, are still required to provide proof of vaccination as a condition of entry.

New York City is believed to be the first jurisdiction in the country to announce that it would prohibit employees and dine-in guests from entering a restaurant unless they could provide proof of having been vaccinated.

The city’s new mayor, Eric Adams, told reporters Wednesday that he “can’t wait” to kill the Big Apple’s vaccine mandate, a move he said is already being planned. But neither hizzoner nor his office has revealed a time table for dropping the requirement, which has been in effect since mid-November.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Tuesday that her city would end its vaccine and mask mandates on Monday, Feb. 28, the same day that the state of Illinois drops its face-covering requirement.

“Based on key data, it looks as if the worst of the Omicron surge is behind us and we will be able to safely remove these emergency measures instituted to protect the health and safety of our residents,” the mayor said in a statement.

Seattle will drop its vaccine mandate for dine-in patrons on March 1, along with the rest of its host county.

Not all jurisdictions with a vaccine-or-mask-up requirement in place is ready to drop that safety measure. New Orleans and San Francisco, for instance, have not signaled any move in that direction.  Indeed, New Orleans recently expanded its vaccine mandate for dine-in restaurant guests to include children 5 years of age or older. 

The flurry of activity within other areas comes as the tally of new coronavirus infections continues to drop for the nation as a whole. The seven-day average of new COVID cases has fallen by 66%, with just under 79,000 instances reported for Feb. 23, according to the daily tally kept by The New York Times.

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