Covid Live Updates: England Plans to Lift Mask Restrictions and Most Others Soon

The prime minister said that he wanted to leave it up to people to decide whether to keep wearing masks in subways, buses and other confined spaces, though the transportation authorities could still require them.

LiveUpdated July 5, 2021, 3:58 p.m. ETJuly 5, 2021, 3:58 p.m. ET

The prime minister said that he wanted to leave it up to people to decide whether to keep wearing masks in subways, buses and other confined spaces, though the transportation authorities could still require them.

Here’s what you need to know:

England plans to lift most virus restrictions, including those for masks, on July 19.

Americans celebrated Independence Day as the U.S. inched toward Biden’s vaccination goal.

As masks become optional, they also become a symbol of class and inequality.

An overnight vaccination drive in Rome reaches out to the ‘most fragile.’

The Met Opera strikes a deal with stagehands over pandemic pay.

BoltBus stops service after its business was battered during the pandemic.

Home renovations are loud and dusty, and they upend your life. But during a pandemic?

England supporters cheering in the stands of Wembley Stadium in London before the start of a European Championship soccer match against Germany last week.Credit…Pool photo by Frank Augstein

As Britain forges ahead with reopening its economy after 16 months of virus-driven restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a backlash over an issue that has vexed the country’s response to the pandemic from the start: whether to require people to wear face masks indoors.

In outlining his government’s plans to lift most remaining restrictions in England on July 19, Mr. Johnson said in a news conference Monday that he wanted to leave it up to people to decide whether to keep wearing masks in subways, buses and other confined spaces, though the transportation authorities could still require them.

That drew fire from local officials and scientists, who said the government was putting more vulnerable people at risk and being overly casual at a time when the virus continues to course through the population. Britain reported 27,334 new cases on Monday and 178,128 over the last week, an increase of 53 percent over the previous week.

“Wearing a mask is not to protect yourself, it is to protect others, which is why it has to be a requirement on public transport,” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government who has been an outspoken critic of its approach. “That is where I don’t think they understand the problem.”

Mr. Johnson said that thanks to Britain’s widespread deployment of vaccines, the link between cases and hospital admissions had been weakened, if not broken completely. Britain, he said, must find a way to live with Covid by allowing people to use their personal judgment to manage the risks.

While cases in Britain have risen steeply in recent weeks, hospitalizations are rising more slowly, and deaths more slowly still. But hospitalizations doubled in the last week, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said at the news conference, and admissions and deaths always lag behind case numbers. So there are lingering concerns among epidemiologists that those numbers, too, might begin to rise sharply in coming weeks.

Given how widespread the virus is, local officials and labor unions that represent transportation workers said that ending the requirement for mask wearing on public transportation would be an act of “gross negligence” on the part of the government.

A final decision will be made next week but, under the plans Mr. Johnson presented on Monday, rules requiring the wearing of masks in England would be lifted on July 19, with decisions left to individuals. Government guidance would suggest that people might do so in confined and crowded places. Travel companies and businesses would be permitted to set their own rules on masks.

Regardless, the planned relaxation would lift almost all legal Covid restrictions for England. That would allow nightclubs to reopen and remove curbs on numbers of people in theaters and cinemas and at live events. The rule limiting the numbers of those meeting inside homes to six people, or two households, would end, as would the requirement that pubs only serve people who are seated.

Customers would no longer be required to leave their contact details when entering pubs and restaurants, the current one-meter distancing rule would be scrapped and the government’s appeal to people to work from home would end. The gap between vaccination shots for those 40 and younger would be shortened to eight weeks, allowing the rollout of vaccines to be stepped up.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are working on separate, though similar timelines to also fully reopen the economy in their regions.

Isabella Kwai and Kaly Soto contributed reporting.

President Biden said on Sunday that getting vaccinated against the coronavirus was “the most patriotic thing” that Americans could do. In remarks addressed to a crowd attending a Fourth of July party on the White House’s South Lawn, and broadcast nationally, he said the United States was emerging from the darkness of the pandemic but stressed that the country was not yet fully clear of it.

He singled out the Delta virus variant as a particular threat.

Mr. Biden had hoped to turn the Fourth of July into a celebration not just of the nation’s independence, but also of reaching his administration’s ambitious goal to have 70 percent of adults at least partly inoculated against the coronavirus before the holiday.

He didn’t quite make it. As of Friday, about 67 percent of people in the country 18 and older had gotten at least one vaccine dose, according to a New York Times tracker. Almost 60 percent of adults were fully vaccinated, and the highly contagious Delta variant was creating hot spots, particularly in states with low vaccination rates, like Missouri.

The shortfall did not dampen the White House’s outlook. The president had pressed ahead with an optimistic message, signaling that this year’s July Fourth celebration would be about “independence from the virus” and a return to some semblance of normal life.

On Saturday, Mr. Biden visited Traverse City, Mich., as part of what the White House called the “America’s Back Together” celebration. On Sunday, he and his wife, Jill Biden, hosted a party whose invitation list included 1,000 military personnel and essential workers, on whom Mr. Biden lavished thanks during his speech.

A sense of a new day seems to be shared by many Americans, who returned to prepandemic Fourth of July rituals in droves, flocking to the roads and the skies in the stiffest test yet for the nation’s travel infrastructure since the pandemic mostly shut it down in March 2020.

The Transportation Security Administration screened 2.197 million people on July 3, the most since March 5, 2020, about a week before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic.

Despite the new variant’s spread, reports of new cases across the country have been holding steady at 12,000 a day, the lowest since testing became widely available. The U.S. average of fewer than 300 daily deaths from Covid-19 is a decline of 23 percent over the past two weeks. Hospitalizations are also dropping.

Some public health experts cautioned, however, that scenes of celebrations might send the wrong message when wide swaths of the population remain vulnerable.

The continuing threat was brought into sharp focus on Saturday when the authorities announced that six emergency medical workers helping with rescue efforts at the site of a collapsed condo in Surfside, Fla., had tested positive.

On Friday, Mr. Biden urged people who have yet to get vaccinated to “think about their family” and get a shot as the Delta variant spreads.

“I am concerned that people who have not gotten vaccinated have the capacity to catch the variant and spread the variant to other people who have not been vaccinated,” he said. “Don’t just think about yourself.”

An employee wearing a mask at a restaurant in New York last month while patrons were free to go without face coverings..Credit…Sara Messinger for The New York Times

In the weeks since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its mask guidelines to allow fully vaccinated people to take their masks off in most indoor settings, a stark divide has emerged, particularly in wealthier enclaves where services are at a premium.

Those still wearing masks tend to be members of the service class — store clerks, waiters, janitors, manicurists, security guards, receptionists, hair stylists and drivers — while those without face coverings are often the well-to-do customers being wined and dined.

Employers are hesitant to discuss their mask policies, but there are sensible reasons for requiring staffers to keep their masks on.

Just under 50 percent of people in the United States are fully vaccinated. And coronavirus variants, some of which are highly infectious and may be more resistant to vaccines, are on the rise, said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Food servers, retail clerks, grocery cashiers and other public-facing workers interact all day with customers, which can put their health (and the health of their customers) at risk. This creates not only potential liability issues for employers, but also could hamstring a business at a time of worker shortages.

Even at establishments that give vaccinated employees the choice to take their masks off, many are keeping them on. “Who knows who has had their shot and who hasn’t,” said Michelle Booker, a store clerk from the Bronx who works at a Verizon store in Midtown Manhattan.

An overnight vaccination drive for people on the margins of society, called Open Night, in Rome on Saturday.Credit…Giuseppe Lami/EPA, via Shutterstock

Nearly 900 people tried to take advantage of an overnight vaccination drive, called Open Night, over the weekend in an inoculation effort organized by the health authorities in the Lazio region of Italy, which includes Rome.

The initiative, organized in a cloister of the Santo Spirito hospital, near the Vatican, was targeted at “people on the margins of society, the most fragile,” said Angelo Tanese, the director general of ASL Roma 1, the region’s largest local health unit.

To help draw in the crowds, a jazz pianist serenaded those present on Saturday night, while free espresso and cornetti — Italian croissants — were offered on Sunday morning.

Doctors and nurses administered the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to homeless people, undocumented migrants, foreign students and foreigners who legally work in Rome but are not registered with the national health service.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which requires only one dose — unlike the two-shot regimens made by AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — is especially useful for inoculating people who may be harder to reach or may not return for a second dose. About 80 percent of the people at the Santo Spirito clinic were undocumented migrants, Mr. Tanese said.

As of Sunday, nearly 20 million people in Italy had been fully vaccinated — about 32 percent of the total population.

A protest including stagehands in front of he Metropolitan Opera in New York in May.Credit…Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Metropolitan Opera has reached a tentative agreement for a new contract with the union that represents its stagehands, increasing the likelihood that the company will return to the stage in September after its longest shutdown ever.

The company’s roughly 300 stagehands were locked out late last year because of a disagreement over how long and lasting pandemic pay cuts would be. But the opera house is in desperate need of workers to prepare its complex operations if it is to reopen in less than three months.

Pressure on the talks had increased as the two sides negotiated for nearly four weeks.

The Met, which says it has lost more than $150 million in revenue since the pandemic forced it to close in March 2020, has asked for significant cuts to the take-home pay of union members.

Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, has said that in order to survive the pandemic and prosper beyond it, the company must cut payroll costs for those unions by 30 percent, effectively cutting take-home pay by about 20 percent. Union leaders have resisted the proposed cuts, arguing that many of its members already went many months without pay.

The discount carrier BoltBus is folding because of low ridership during the pandemic.Credit…Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

BoltBus, the bus service known for offering its passengers Wi-Fi and $1 lottery seats, is shutting down operations indefinitely after months of low ridership during the pandemic, according to Greyhound, its parent company.

The discount bus operator said last month that it was transferring most of its routes to Greyhound in order to “undergo renovations.” BoltBus had suspended service earlier in the pandemic, but its parent company said last week that the operator had no plans to put its buses back on the road.

“Currently there is not a timeline to return BoltBus operations,” Emma Kaiser, a Greyhound spokeswoman, told The Seattle Times.

Greyhound, which operates the largest intercity bus fleet in North America, teamed up with Peter Pan Bus Lines in 2008 to start BoltBus. The companies wanted to offer an affordable ride to people put off by grubbier alternatives.

At least one seat on every BoltBus ride sold for $1 plus a booking fee. Passengers could reserve seats, unlike on Greyhound. BoltBus offered passengers Wi-Fi, individual power outlets and extra legroom, according to its website.

Other cheap intercity bus operators that are still running, including FlixBus, Peter Pan and Megabus, may see a surge in riders, because domestic travel is on the rise as pandemic restrictions loosen.

Credit…Trisha Krauss

Millions of Americans decided that this past year was an opportune time to rip out some walls and build a new kitchen, bathroom or addition.

For those who muscled through and stayed in their homes while the work was underway, the experience was of a 24-7 construction site. With offices closed, conference calls took place against a noisy backdrop of hammering and sanding. So much for Zoom school when the Wi-Fi goes down without warning. Need a quick meal because the kitchen is gutted down to the studs? It’s not so easy when restaurants are closed for indoor dining.

Rajiv Surendra, a calligrapher and actor in his early 30s who is best known for his role in the 2004 movie “Mean Girls,” renovated the kitchen in his Upper West Side one-bedroom last year. He installed wainscoting, sanded cabinets, and made bracket shelves and a peg rail by hand. With his entire apartment turned into a work site, he had almost no space that felt like his own.

So he found something that could mentally take him away from a space he rarely left. Every night, he would spend two hours practicing the harp and the piano, teaching himself Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2. “That was a very good thing, for me to get my mind away from that stuff,” he said.

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