New York Mayor Eric Adams attends a briefing on Feb.14, 2023, in the Bronx, New York.

New York Mayor Eric Adams attends a briefing on Feb.14, 2023, in the Bronx, New York. (Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS)

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NEW YORK (Tribune News Service) — Mayor Eric Adams called on shoppers Monday to enter New York City businesses maskless from now on — a message aimed at reducing shoplifting, but one that runs counter to COVID-era recommendations to mask up when in enclosed public spaces.

Adams, who was speaking on "PIX11 Morning News," didn't entirely rule out masks in stores, noting that shoppers could don face coverings moments after entering — as long as their face could be fully viewed before putting it on when first entering a store.

"Let's be clear. Some of these characters going into stores that are wearing a mask, they're not doing it because they are afraid of the pandemic," he said. "They're doing it because they're afraid of the police, and we need to stop allowing them to exploit the safety of the pandemic by wearing masks, committing crimes."

After COVID-19 first hit the city three years ago, city officials advised — and then mandated — New Yorkers wear masks in enclosed public places with some businesses making masks mandatory among patrons. The introduction of vaccines led to a loosening of mask-wearing rules — and COVID-19 variants brought them back — but many establishments now view masks indoors as optional.

But for people with compromised autoimmune systems and those suffering from long COVID, masks are still generally viewed as a necessary form of protection when in an enclosed public setting.

Dr. Jay Varma, a top medical adviser under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, responded to Adams' remarks Monday by suggesting that patrons should have the option of keeping their mask on at all times.

"Masks are an essential protective item for people at high risk of complications from COVID-19 and other airborne pathogens," Varma said. "It is important that people who wish to safeguard their own health in public indoor spaces be permitted to do so."

Adams said Monday that the city is now calling on shop owners to forbid patrons into their stores if they have a mask on, but he did not say exactly how they should go about doing that, or what they should do in the event of inevitable confrontations.

Adams did note, though, that forcing shoppers to remove masks in stores is aimed at capturing their likeness on film in the event of a crime taking place.

"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 minutes earlier on 1010 WINS. "Once they're inside, they can continue to wear it if they so desire to do so, but we need to use the technology we have available to identify those shoplifters and those who are committing serious crimes."

Shoplifting has been an increasing concern in the city both during the height of COVID-19 and as the pandemic has leveled off. In de Blasio's last year in office, robberies spiked 4.5% compared to the year prior, an increase that former New York Police Department Commissioner Dermot Shea attributed at the time to shoplifting.

More recent stats show that the NYPD has begun to make a dent in the problem, though. NYPD Chief of Crime Control Strategies Michael LiPetri noted last week that shoplifting dropped last month.

Adams said Monday that to keep those numbers trending downward, the NYPD is also beefing up its presence in Business Improvement Districts, as well as surveillance.

"And we have something called paid detail where uniform officers are allowed during their off duty hours to do some of the security at many of our stores and locations," he said. "It has always been successful. I recall, when I was a police officer, it being utilized, and we are calling on those high-end stores to also continue to do so."

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