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Vaccine requirements are being lifted across America as Covid cases wane

But a public health expert says it is a "move to promote normalcy without there really being normalcy."
Image: Moderna COVID-19 vaccination
A woman receives a Moderna Covid-19 vaccine shot from nurse Kathy McLoyd at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago on Feb. 13, 2021.Kamil Krzaczynski / Reuters file

Seattle, the biggest city in the state where the first U.S. case of Covid-19 was confirmed more than two years ago, will lift its proof-of-vaccination requirement for restaurants, theaters and gyms starting March 1.

And city and county employees who have been working from home for two long years will soon start getting called back into the office.

From coast to coast, other major cities, including Philadelphia, the Twin Cities and the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., are doing the same as the rate of Covid-19 infections plummets. Nationally, the average number of new daily cases has dropped by 67 percent in the last two weeks, according to NBC News' tally.

"Numbers are coming down, and it is time to adapt," New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said after the state’s stringent mandate, which required businesses to demand proof of full vaccination or mask-wearing at all indoor venues, expired this month. 

On Thursday, Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, became the latest big-city mayor to lift the requirement to show proof of vaccination at restaurants and other public venues.

"The data shows that we are making tremendous progress," Baraka said in a statement. "Our three-day rolling average for the City of Newark is at 2.5%. We have not been here in a long time."

But public health experts are watching the trend with wary eyes. They note that more than 103,000 people in the U.S. have died of Covid so far in 2022 alone and that while 76 percent of the population has gotten at least one shot, millions of people still haven’t.

"I wish the pandemic were over and it was safe to lift vaccine mandates, particularly in spaces where masks will be off for eating and drinking. This seems like a move to promote normalcy without there really being normalcy," said Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "Vaccine mandates are safe and effective public health strategies, and backing down on this is likely to worsen spread."

Khan said she is sympathetic to "the business perspective to remove vaccine mandates and to encourage more patrons and guests."

However, she added, "this especially puts in danger those who are immunocompromised or can’t yet get vaccinated."

Anthony Santella, who runs the Department of Health Administration and Policy at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, agreed.

"It's too soon," Santella said. "We went through this in the summer, when many people thought things were getting back to normal and rolled back the mitigation policies designed to stop the spread."

But then came the delta variant, followed by the even more contagious omicron variant, which infected both vaccinated and unvaccinated people and forced local authorities to reimpose stricter pandemic protocols, the experts said.

"When they tried to reimpose these measures, they got pushback even from people who had previously been receptive," Santella said. "Yes, things have improved dramatically. But this is not over. I think we need to be a bit more patient."

However, in King County, Washington, where Seattle is located, daily infection rates have fallen by 83 percent since early January and hospitalizations are down by 62 percent. So local officials said they have fewer qualms about ditching the vaccination mandates.

“Our public health experts believe that now is the appropriate time to lift vaccine verification, based on the high rates of vaccine coverage and the decrease in new cases and hospitalizations across the country,” County Executive Dow Constantine said Wednesday. “We are moving in the right direction and can continue taking additional steps toward recovery.”

Masks will still be required at all indoor public places in the county, regardless of vaccination status.

Josh Henderson, who owns two Burbs Burgers branches in Seattle, told The Seattle Times the change was “long overdue.”

“This was ridiculous from the start to check vaccination cards,” he said. “We will gladly not check vax cards, just as before. We welcome everyone.”

In Washington, D.C., where Covid cases have dropped by more than 90 percent since the height of the omicron wave, Mayor Muriel Bowser gave constituents a post-Valentine's Day present by announcing that proof of vaccination will no longer be required in places like restaurants and entertainment venues starting Feb. 28. 

But Bowser said the rule could return if a new variant emerges.

“We have to be nimble if something is to change, like it changed in December with a new, very contagious variant,” she said. “I don’t think any of us can say here that there won’t be other variants that would require us to do something different.”

While Chicago's proof-of-vaccination mandate remains in place, the City Council in the swanky suburb of Highland Park allowed the requirement that anyone over 5 show proof of vaccination to enter an eatery to lapse.

"The numbers have drastically improved on the necessary health care statistics,” Mayor Nancy Rotering told the Chicago Tribune. “We are working to achieve the balance between mitigating the strain on our health care system and returning to normal.”

Last week, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter jointly announced that they were lifting the vaccination requirements for restaurants, bars and entertainment venues that were imposed on Jan. 19.

“We are grateful to be in a different place now than we were when this requirement first took effect,” Carter said. “While I encourage residents to continue to get vaccinated, wear masks and practice social distancing while indoors, the sharp decline in cases and hospitalizations means we can safely lift the vaccine requirement in our city.”

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu said the city's proof-of-vaccination mandate for bars, restaurants and gyms, which was imposed Jan. 15, could be lifted this week.

Such requirements were never imposed in Texas or Florida, which have recorded the second- and third-highest numbers of Covid cases and deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to NBC News figures. In fact, any business in Florida that requires proof of vaccination faces a $5,000 fine for each person it asks.

Texas' and Florida's woeful statistics are eclipsed only by those in California, the country's most populous state.

But in California, where nearly 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, vaccination requirements vary from place to place. Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Culver City mandate that businesses check for vaccination proof, for example, whereas the City Council in nearby Santa Monica voted against such a rule this month. That was largely because 91 percent of its residents have gotten at least one shot, the Santa Monica Daily Press reported.

The state also continues to require that people show they are vaccinated to attend large indoor or outdoor “mega-events,” like conventions, concerts and sporting events.