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New York’s Mayor Wants to Make People Take Their Face Masks Off Following a String of Robberies

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New York City, hit hard in the early days of the pandemic, once required all New Yorkers to wear a mask when entering stores until February 2022. A year later, New York Mayor Eric Adams says that masks have become a way for criminals to hide their faces, and they’re asking businesses to enforce indoor mask bans in the city.

In an interview with PIX 11 on Monday, Adams said that the change would help police properly use security cameras to identify those who shoplift and commit serious crimes. “Let’s be clear, some of these characters going into stores that are wearing their mask, they’re not doing it because they’re afraid of the pandemic, they’re doing it because they’re afraid of the police,” the mayor said. “We need to stop allowing them to exploit the safety of the pandemic by wearing masks, committing crimes.”

New York remains one of the few American cities where masks are still a common sight in public—especially on the subway. Backlash to the proposal was swift online. “Someone who wears a mask is the least likely to a commit crime. In case you still don’t know, wearing a mask means we actually care what happens to people, even ones we don’t know,” said one Twitter user.

Adams noted that customers could put their masks back on after revealing their faces. “We are putting out a clear call to all of our shops: Do not allow people to enter the store without taking off their face mask,” he said in a radio interview with New York station 1010 WINS. “And then once they’re inside, they can continue to wear it if they so desire to do so.”

“As a sign of a peace offering, a sign of safety to those store workers, when we walk in, we should take down our mask,” NYPD Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey said at a press conference on Monday.

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Matthew Cortland, a senior fellow at the progressive think tank Data for Progress and lawyer who specializes in areas of disability and healthcare says that the measure isn’t a law yet, but it could still be challenged legally.

“It’s a distinction that matters because if it was a formal action that he had taken, my guess is that he would have been sued by now,” says Cortland. “Mayor Adams is asking stores to do this. However, if any stores take him up on it, that store can then be the subject of a complaint to city regulators, state regulators, or a lawsuit.”

The move comes after a string of robberies, including one that resulted in a clerk’s death. Assistant Chief Joseph Kenny of the NYPD’s detective bureau said that in each robbery, the perpetrator arrived on the scene wearing a white full-body Tyvek hazmat-style suit and a dark-colored face mask.

According to police department data, New York City has seen a decline in crime across most categories for the first two months of 2023 compared with the same period last year. New York City saw 17,411 robberies in 2022, up from 13,371 in 2019 and 13,831 in 2021, according to NYPD data.

Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Adams told the New York Daily News that the mask decision was in line with federal guidelines. “Safety is always top of mind, which is why we’re talking about a mask being down upon entrance to a store for seconds, not minutes or hours, and then it could be put back on if an individual chooses to do so,” he said. “This is the very same approach TSA uses when anyone travels on a plane.”

CDC guidelines say that longer exposure times, like contact longer than 15 minutes, is more likely to result in transmission than two minutes of contact. But, Cortland says that doesn’t mean the risk is gone–especially for those who are immunocompromised. “If there is SARS-CoV-2 floating in the air of the corner bodega where you get your egg and cheese every morning and you are immunocompromised, taking off your highly protective mask in that enclosed space is a direct threat to your health. It will not require 15 minutes to become infected,” Cortland says.

With pandemic restrictions lifting and the Biden Administration ending pandemic emergency declarations in May 2023, Cortland says the decision reflects a large trend of immunocompromised Americans being left on their own when it comes to protecting themselves against the threat of the virus.

“Immunocompromised Americans are being put in this impossible situation where the rest of society has decided to pretend that COVID is no longer a threat. We don’t have a choice but to acknowledge the reality that COVID-19 is still circulating. So you either get your groceries delivered or, if you can’t afford that, you risk exposure.” Cortland said.“What traditionally has happened throughout the pandemic is immunocompromised people are shoved out in public life.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com