As coronavirus cases continue to rise in New York City, the city entered a higher risk level for the virus on Monday, a troubling reminder that the pandemic is not over and that the virus still has the power to harm New Yorkers.
The city moved into the medium, or yellow, risk category for virus transmission, a development that could trigger the return of public health restrictions, although they are not required to be reinstated at this point.
Mayor Eric Adams, who last month contracted his first known case of the virus, will face difficult decisions over whether to bring back mask and vaccine mandates at a time when he is focused on the city’s economic recovery and workers are returning to offices.
The city is now seeing nearly 2,500 new cases per day, a significant jump from about 600 daily cases in early March. The latest rise, fueled by the highly contagious Omicron subvariant known as BA.2, does not rival the first Omicron surge in December and January, but recorded case levels are as high as they were when the Delta variant swept through the city last year.
What’s more, case levels in New York City, and around the country, are likely much higher than the official statistics because many residents are testing at home, and positive at-home tests are not typically included in official tallies.
Mr. Adams has emphasized that hospitalizations and deaths remain low; there are currently more than 50 new hospitalizations and four or five deaths on average in the city each day. In January, new hospitalizations rose to 1,000 per day, and deaths to more than 120 per day.
New Yorkers had celebrated a six-week lull in cases that began in mid-February, and many of the normal routines of life returned. Friends gathered for celebrations. Workers roamed offices without masks. Subway ridership crept up.
In early March, Mr. Adams rolled back longstanding restrictions, including mask mandates at schools and proof-of-vaccination requirements at restaurants, gyms and movie theaters. The mayor stood in Times Square and declared: “It’s time to reopen our city.”
But cases soon began to rise again, and Mr. Adams reversed his plans to end mask requirements at preschools and day cares. Several Broadway shows shut down as the virus spread throughout their casts.
Mr. Adams, a Democrat who took office in January, appears reluctant to bring back mandates. He said last month that he would consider doing so, but added that he agreed with comments by Gov. Kathy Hochul about the importance of moving forward.
“We have to factor in everything,” Mr. Adams said. “I think Governor Hochul was right when she stated we can’t close down our city.”
Mr. Adams also said that he supported keeping a mask mandate on the subway, which Ms. Hochul has maintained for all public transit across the state.
Many New Yorkers might be ready to move past the pandemic, but the virus is spreading rapidly again. As a result, the city should consider bringing back some public health restrictions that lapsed, said Gregg Gonsalves, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.
“People can be fed up, angry, tired and frustrated — I am too,” he said. “But wishing the pandemic away doesn’t make it so.”
Mr. Adams introduced the color-coded alert system in March, based on parameters set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
New York had remained since then at the lowest level of risk, represented by the color green, meaning virus cases had mostly stayed below 200 per 100,000 residents per week; the city has now surpassed that threshold, Dr. Ashwin Vasan, the health commissioner, said Monday.
The alert system lists several steps that Mr. Adams should consider at the medium level: Requiring masks in schools again, and bringing back the city’s system for checking for proof of vaccination at restaurants, gyms and indoor entertainment sites, known as Key to N.Y.C.
If the city enters the high risk level, represented by the color orange, then Mr. Adams should consider requiring face masks in all public indoor settings, according to the alert system.
Mr. Adams said last month that the key word in the guidance was “consider,” and that the rules were merely guidance.
“I’m going to factor in all the information, and then after meeting with my health team, we’re going to make a determination,” he said.
State health officials recently announced a troubling new development: Two new versions of the subvariant — BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1, which seem to spread more rapidly than BA.2 — seem to be behind steep case increases in upstate New York, where more than 30 counties, including those that contain Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Binghamton, have already entered the high community transmission level, according to the C.D.C.
The city’s warning system is also based on a new C.D.C. color-coded system that increased the number of cases needed to ascend an alert level. Under the older version, most of the Northeast, including New York City, would already be considered red, or high transmission areas.
Dr. Jay Varma, the director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response, said that he was skeptical about the utility of the alert level, because changes to it do not trigger actual policy shifts, and because it doesn’t take into account the rate at which things are worsening.
“The problem is that moving from low to medium on the health department’s website doesn’t really change anything,” said Dr. Varma, who was also a special adviser to former Mayor Bill de Blasio. “It’s very difficult to make an alert level that is not seen as an actual trigger for direct action.”
Nearly 88 percent of adults in the city are fully vaccinated, but the rates are lower among children. Only about 45 percent of adults have received booster doses, which experts say are crucial as protection from initial doses wanes.
Elected officials should not frame the debate as a choice between keeping the economy open and implementing protective measures, Mr. Gonsalves said, noting that when more New Yorkers get sick, it means they cannot go to work.
“Nobody is suggesting that Mayor Adams or Governor Hochul should be shutting down things or going back to April 2020,” he said. “Modest measures to protect the health of New Yorkers are warranted.”