“Encouraged, but optional:” A Mask-Free NYC

Is there hope for the end of a pandemic-era New York City?

Photo Courtesy / YouTube Luftschlange

In the past three months, Governor Kathy Hochul has declared New York a state of disaster and emergency due to recent monkeypox and polio outbreaks. Additionally, an E.coli outbreak focused in the midwest spread to New York, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite this, Hochul dropped mask mandates on public transit Sept. 7 after two years of strict observation. 

“Masks are encouraged, but optional,” Hochul said in a statement. “This is what you’re going to see on our subways and our mass transit throughout the state of New York.” 

The decision follows a Metro Transit Authority (MTA) study which found mask compliance amid riders dropped in recent months.

With 71% of St. John’s students living off-campus or commuting, many students rely on public transportation to get to school. 

“I genuinely just forget to bring my mask sometimes because I’m in a rush, but now I’m not as worried about wearing a mask,” said sophomore Paulina Maczko. She takes the G train, E train and Q46 to commute to campus. “I wear it when it’s more crowded but I just remember taking the train before [COVID-19], and since no one wore a mask before, it helps me be less worried about not wearing one.”

“I stopped wearing my mask about a month before the mandate was lifted because I no longer felt at risk while taking public transportation,” noted sophomore Shamarric Edwards. “Plus, wearing the mask was truly an uncomfortable experience for me, so as soon as I felt safe, I stopped wearing them.”

Edwards touched on feeling safe in a post-mask-mandated NYC. “Generally, I feel as safe as it gets when walking in a big city. However, during the pandemic, there have been times when I felt as if I was putting myself at risk solely because of the magnitude of people that are normally in the city all at once.”

Students living on campus frequent the city, with public transportation being an accessible way. 

“I usually have some sort of looming fear whenever I roam the city. There are still so many unvaccinated people that are walking around, and I just feel a lot safer wearing my mask and making sure that I am keeping myself, and my suitemates safe,” said sophomore on-campus resident Amaiya Sancho. “I still continue to mask on the subways.”

MTA ridership has surged following the erasing of the mandate. 5.6 million people took public transit Wednesday, marking the highest ridership since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 3.7 million people rode the subway, and 384,000 LIRR and Metro-North commuters are among that number. 

With new COVID-19 boosters, the broadening of monkeypox vaccine eligibility and a dire call by New York State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett to stay up to date on polio immunizations, hope looms for New Yorkers that the end of pandemic-era NYC may be in sight.