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In New York City, a statewide mask mandate for businesses has ended


About a dozen states recently announced they're ending masking requirements for certain indoor spaces. That includes New York, one of the country's hotspots for the recent omicron surge. The state officially ended its indoor mask mandate for businesses last Thursday. In New York City, the change is causing some confusion and feelings of resignation. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang recently checked in with some New Yorkers in the city's Harlem neighborhood.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Sura Khan was taking a break from shopping and sitting outside on a bench when I pointed out a sign hanging from a clothing store's entrance.

SURA KHAN: What does that say? I can't - oh, please wear a face mask.

WANG: It was a day after New York Governor Kathy Hochul had lifted the statewide mask mandate for businesses and announced that with lower numbers of people testing positive for the coronavirus, local governments and individual stores can set their own policies.

KHAN: The New York governor, you said, said that? Wow. I didn't know that. Wow.

WANG: Khan said he's still seeing lots of masks on other customers inside businesses, and that would be in line with the current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - to mask up indoors in areas with substantial or high coronavirus transmission, which covers most of the country. For now, there are still mask mandates on public transit, in schools and hospitals in New York, and Khan said it's hard to keep up with the changing policies.

KHAN: A lot of people are just very confused because they politicized this so bad, you know? And people really don't know what to do, and they're starting to just not care anymore. They're starting not to believe anymore.

JAMES BROWN: I say everybody go by their own judgment. If you feel like you need to protect yourself, protect yourself when entering these stores.

WANG: For James Brown, lifting New York's statewide mask mandate for businesses now makes sense. Brown said he's only worn a mask inside stores when it's required.

BROWN: People want to feel comfortable while they're shopping. Not everyone has made the mask part of their everyday plan. You will want to have a little bit of freedom, especially for America.

WANG: But the way Kadi Conteh sees it, that freedom from masking up inside stores and other businesses could come at a cost to public health.

KADI CONTEH: If you're not worried about overrunning hospitals or getting people in your family ill, then, you know, feel free to breathe free. I'm a teacher, so I have to wear this thing all day, every day in a classroom.

WANG: Conteh said she understands that many people are frustrated with the masking protocols that have upended life as many once knew it.

CONTEH: I see some of my students outside. If they pull up their mask, it's like, oh, wow. That's what your face really looks like? But I think just for the safety, I just, you know - remember what it was like in the beginning, the amount of death every day, the sirens constantly, you know?

WANG: But Conteh added she gets that heading into the third year of the pandemic, not everyone is on the same page about masking.

CONTEH: I just honestly think at this point, just let people make their own decisions.

WANG: The decision Jennifer Erickson is making for now is to keep masking in public, including when on a playground with her 5- and 2-year-old kids.

JENNIFER ERICKSON: We just moved in the neighborhood, so this is our first outing since moving about two weeks ago. We feel more confident with the numbers being down as far as infection rate but still enough to want to wear masks.

WANG: Erickson said she'll probably feel more confident after her youngest child can get a coronavirus vaccine. At this point, though, New York state lifting its indoor mask mandate for businesses...

ERICKSON: I personally think it's a little premature.

WANG: Still, Erickson said, given how the pandemic is going so far, she sees some light at the end of this long tunnel. And once she and her family have reached that end, they might still be masking up.

ERICKSON: You know, we haven't been sick in two years, so I think I might just continue to wear a mask.

WANG: At least, Erickson said, through cold and flu seasons.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.

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