Worries about the safety of New York City's deli clerks and bodega workers have Mayor Eric Adams making an unusual request: Members of the public should lower their face masks to reassure store workers they're not criminals, Adams and other city leaders said on Monday.
"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," Adams said in an interview with radio station 1010 WINS.
"Once they're inside, they can continue to wear it if they so desire to do so," Adams said of the policy.
The guidance quickly caused a stir in New York City, where the terrible toll from the early COVID-19 pandemic prompted a mask mandate. At many stores, doors and windows remain plastered with reminders to wear face coverings.
And in a town famous for its no-nonsense culture, questions immediately popped up about the wisdom of putting yet another onus on store workers — and whether armed criminals would follow new rules about masks. Some people also wondered if forcing those with compromised immune systems to remove their masks indoors might itself break the law.
Criminals fear the police, not the pandemic, Adams says
The mayor and police officials are speaking out about masks as New York tries to reduce crimes, including store robberies and shoplifting.
As NPR member Gothamist reports, "Robberies spiked in New York City last year, with 17,411 reported last year, compared to 13,831 in 2021, according to NYPD data. Before that, the number of reported robberies hadn't exceeded 17,000 since 2013."
In addition to easing clerks' anxiety, Adams and other leaders say, removing masks can give cameras a chance to identify criminals.
"When you see these mask-wearing people, oftentimes it's not about being fearful of the pandemic, it's fearful of the police catching them for their deeds," the mayor said.
NYPD Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey, the highest-ranking uniformed member of the agency, echoed Adams as he and other officials spoke about a recent spate of store robberies at a sidewalk news conference.
"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," Maddrey said, calling it "a commonsense approach."
One masked man has been connected to at least four recent robbery cases across several boroughs, including a holdup that resulted in a clerk's death.
In each robbery, Assistant Chief Joseph Kenny of the NYPD's detective bureau said, "The perpetrator arrived on the scene driving a dark-colored scooter, wearing a white full-bodied Tyvek suit and a dark-colored face mask."
The mask-removal policy could prove particularly effective, Maddrey said, in stores that have installed buzzers to grant customers' access.
New policy triggers a flood of questions
At Monday's news conference, reporters asked if it was realistic to expect someone who intended to rob a store to remove their mask as they go inside.
"The whole mask thing, in this case, it seems kind of silly," said journalist Kemberly Richardson of ABC 7.
"It's not silly, Kemberly. This is real," said Fernando Mateo, president of the United Bodegas of America, adding that the policy could help shop workers stay alive.
"You're going into a small business, into a bodega, be ready to take your masks off," Mateo said.
Still, there are the issues of health ramifications and legality. COVID-19 is still a global pandemic, and it remains active in New York City, which on Monday reported a daily average of 611 new cases and 24 new hospitalizations for the past week.
The city's health agency currently states that "we strongly recommend everyone to wear masks in all indoor public settings" to reduce the spread of viruses that cause COVID-19 and other illnesses.
Any rule that would force immunocompromised people to remove their face masks would violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Human Rights Law, according to Matthew Cortland, a lawyer who specializes in areas of disability and healthcare as a senior resident fellow at Data for Progress.
Cortland urged people to push back on what he called a "morally repugnant and unlawful policy initiative" from Adams.
It's not enough to say people would only need to drop their mask for a moment, Cortland said, adding that making it a condition for entering public stores amounts to discrimination.