On July 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new public health recommendations for fully vaccinated individuals based on new evidence regarding the delta variant circulating in the United States.
The new guidance recommends that fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission, meaning counties with at least 50 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days or a test positivity rate of 8% and above.
When the guidance was first released, it initially only applied to New York City, Long Island and Greene County, but by Sunday, Aug. 1, the new recommendation spread to 23 of New York’s 62 counties, including Westchester County, which is currently listed as having “substantial” community transmission.
As of Wednesday, Westchester County had 91.89 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days. The CDC defines areas with “substantial” transmission as those reporting between 50 and 99 cases per 100,000 residents. Areas with cases over 100 per 100,000 residents are termed “high.”
COVID-19 cases are on the rise again locally, although they remain far below peaks in January and last fall. As of Aug. 4, the county reported 22 confirmed cases in the Town of Bedford, 16 in Lewisboro and six in Pound Ridge. Two months ago, the case totals for the towns were, respectively, six, one and zero.
Elected officials and organizations throughout New York are continuing to urge residents to get vaccinated as the best available protection against COVID-19, including the delta variant, which now makes up roughly 93% of all new cases in the U.S., according to the CDC.
More and more counties are falling within the threshold for the new CDC mask recommendations, with half of New York’s counties showing substantial or high COVID-19 transmission or test positivity rates as of Tuesday.
According to Westchester County Executive George Latimer as of Monday, Aug. 2, 80% of adult residents, 18 and older, living in the county have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Mr. Latimer said the vaccination rate equates to 653,829 people vaccinated out of the total population of 967,612 in the county.
“The vaccine has proven month after month to protect the people that we serve, with positive cases on a general downward trend along with hospitalizations and deaths,” Mr. Latimer said. “We have a long way to go and COVID is not yet behind us, but these vaccination statistics are proof that we are moving forward, we are united, and we will be stronger because of it.”
Health system mandates vaccines
On Tuesday, Aug. 3, a spokesperson for Northwell Health, which operates Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco and other hospitals, provided a statement to The Record-Review, highlighting that their vaccination program has been successful in getting 77% of their workforce vaccinated. However, due to new developments and information regarding the disease’s transmissibility and to ensure the safety of patients, Northwell Health will now require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Northwell Health is the state’s largest private employer and health care provider.
“Team members who are not fully vaccinated by Aug. 16 will be required to be tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis,” said the representative, Nadine Woloshin, in an email. “Those who fail to get tested in a timely manner will face adverse action that could progress up to and include termination.”
At Northern Westchester Hospital, she said, 86% have received COVID-19 vaccinations.
In a trend echoing policy announcements in the early months of the pandemic, county and local governments have begun reimposing restrictions and mask requirements in the wake of the new CDC guidance.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that reinstating requirements like mask wearing in public gathering spaces will remain a local decision, unlike what occurred previously under Mr. Cuomo’s sweeping emergency powers which expired at the end of June. Mr. Cuomo did impose vaccination mandates for state workers, and employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Port Authority, which requires them to have their shots by Labor Day or be tested for the virus weekly.
Mr. Cuomo urged local governments to take more aggressive steps in terms of mask wearing and possibly mandating vaccines for public-facing workers. On Wednesday, Mr. Latimer reestablished a mandatory mask mandate for most county facilities. At all Westchester County office buildings, he said unvaccinated employees and visitors will be required to wear masks at all times, and vaccinated individuals must be masked in all common areas. In addition, Mr. Latimer announced that masks will be required at concession stands, locker rooms, bathrooms and other locations, regardless of vaccination status, at all county beaches and pools.
Local practices vary
The effects of the new CDC guidelines for vaccinated individuals are being felt at the local level as residents going about their daily routines struggle with deciding when they should wear masks.
In Pound Ridge, Town Supervisor Kevin Hansan said he decided to reimplement mandatory mask wearing in government buildings and meetings. Mr. Hansan said that even though Pound Ridge historically has low cases, he wants to ensure that all residents and employees are safe.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Mr. Hansan said regarding reinstituting the mask requirement. He added that, as of Wednesday, more than 80% of Pound Ridgers have received their first vaccine dose, and nearly 74% are fully vaccinated, according to state data.
Based on these figures, Mr. Hansan said it was concerning knowing that approximately 20% of people one comes in contact with are not vaccinated. Lewisboro Town Supervisor Peter Parsons echoed Mr. Hansan’s points, stating, “It’s quite clear that if you’re in a public space, you should be wearing a mask whether you’re vaccinated or not.”
Mr. Parsons said the town never stopped requiring masks in the halls and public areas of government buildings, and that masks will continue to be required at town meetings. He added that the town has remained somewhat conservative about lifting restrictions and reopening offices, and for now at least he does not plan to change any policies that aim to mitigate the virus spread.
In addition, at the Lewisboro Library, masks will be required for everyone inside the building beginning today, Friday, Aug. 6. Curbside pick-up services will continue to be available for those who don’t feel comfortable going inside the building.
Mr. Parsons still expressed concern about the town’s vaccination rates, which historically showed the South Salem zip code lagging behind the rest. As of Aug. 4, the South Salem zip code had 69.9% vaccinated with at least one dose, which is still over 10% less than the surrounding zip codes. Waccabuc had 84.6% vaccinated with one dose, Goldens Bridge had 81.1% and Cross River had 94.4%.
With varying vaccination rates and mask mandates, residents in Lewisboro and surrounding towns are expressing confusion on what they’re supposed to do. An informal survey of patrons of Green Way Markets in Cross River earlier this week showed approximately half of the customers wearing masks. However, almost all employees at the supermarket were observed wearing masks.
The uncertainty about mask guidelines was made clear by one couple shopping at Green Way. One was sporting a mask while the other was not. The couple said they found the mixed messages regarding mask requirements extremely confusing, leaving them unsure of the best practice.
A cashier at the supermarket said she also was unsure of whether masks were necessary, but still sees many shoppers wearing them. That has led her to continue to wear her mask, she said, so everyone feels safe.
In response to requests from patrons, the Bedford Playhouse said this week it is expanding its “fully-vaccinated screening schedule” and has designated Thursdays in August as “our fully-vaccinated screening day.” For those showtimes, guests will need to provide proof of full vaccination when checking in at the movie theater’s box office, officials said.
An employee at The Reading Room in Katonah, shared similar observations, and said that he has seen an increase this week in the number of customers wearing masks, while also noting all employees do so. A sign outside the café and book store advises patrons of the CDC recommendations, but does not state there is a mask requirement for customers.
Representatives of several local restaurants said they observed little change this week in mask-wearing behavior among customers. Joe DiScala, president of Peppino’s Ristorante, Katonah, said the eatery has not imposed new mask policies. While his customers don’t seem to have adopted stricter mask policies, he said he has noticed more people walking in Katonah wearing masks.
At the Farmhouse Tavern, also in Katonah, there are stricter policies, including requiring diners be vaccinated and proof of vaccination in order for diners to be maskless upon entering.
An employee of Bacio Trattoria in Cross River said that more people seem to be going out to dine despite rising concerns over the delta variant. She said Bacio’s outdoor seating area is fully booked days in advance, while their indoor space is equally busy.
“As people are getting vaccinated, they’re coming out in droves,” the employee said, adding that, by her estimate, one in 10 patrons is seen wearing a mask.