From New York to the Netherlands, the (western) world is moving on from Omicron. Here’s where the big rollback is happening
Governments worldwide are starting to reduce or eliminate COVID restrictions, as much of the western world begins to consider living with the virus rather than eradicating it.
For the past two years, fears of a deadly virus pushed many to willingly adopt different lifestyles and drastically adjust our behavior.
But now, after the Omicron variant’s fast and furious spread through the world, people are experiencing COVID fatigue. Although death rates remain high, some governments are beginning to loosen pandemic-era restrictions.
The process to roll back restrictions in the U.S. has been different among states and cities, just like the process of instituting those restrictions in the first place.
New York state made waves on Wednesday when Gov. Kathy Hochul announced it would drop its strict indoor mask mandate, following in the footsteps of similar announcements on masking requirements from Democratic-led states including Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Oregon, California, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. All these states have announced they would be lifting indoor mask mandates in certain public spaces including schools no later than March.
And other states have banned any kind of mask mandate outright. In Kentucky, mask mandates were dropped last September after Republican lawmakers banned statewide masking requirements. Another bill in Idaho to permanently ban mask mandates is heading to state legislators for approval soon.
Mask requirements in all spaces are still present in some states, such as Hawaii. Washington recently announced it would lift its outdoor mask mandate on Feb. 18, but gave no indication as to when the indoor requirement would be rolled back.
In California, people no longer need to show a negative COVID test to enter hospitals or nursing homes. The state has indicated that it will announce more COVID restriction rollbacks next week.
Across the Atlantic, European countries already started rolling back vaccine restrictions weeks ago, as the continent began moving past the emergency phase of the pandemic.
Denmark became the first country to fully roll back restrictions at the beginning of February. At the time, the country was in the midst of a big wave of new COVID-19 infections, but death and hospitalization numbers were relatively low.
The Scandinavian country’s actions turned out to be a harbinger for similar policies across the continent. England, Sweden, Norway, Spain, and Italy have all followed in Denmark’s footsteps and will scrap outdoor mask mandates, and long isolation periods after testing positive by the end of February.
The Czech Republic has already loosened rules that require citizens to show vaccination passes when accessing places like bars, restaurants, hairdressers, and sports venues. Estonia will also do away with requiring vaccine cards for people to access outdoors events after Feb. 14.
France will remove indoor mask mandates in most public spaces by the end of February, and Spanish health officials said they are developing a pilot program for a “new COVID-19 monitoring system” due to launch later this year that will mirror monitoring systems for the flu, extrapolating evidence from wide population samples rather than focusing on extensive testing. Spanish officials said they believe that counting individual COVID case numbers is not as important at this stage of the pandemic compared to hospitalization rates.
Several European countries have also loosened their travel requirements. The E.U. recommended on Feb. 1 that countries scrap isolation periods for incoming travelers who possess a “green pass,” a certification that they are either fully vaccinated, recovered from COVID, or have recently tested negative.
In the beginning of February, Greece and Portugal both removed testing requirements for vaccinated people entering the countries. The Netherlands also did away with quarantine periods for travelers who received a booster shot entering after Feb. 2.
In Oceania, Australia and New Zealand have both indicated early in February that zero-COVID policies will largely be dropped, as restrictions are rolled back and border controls loosened.
But while the western world is doing away with most COVID-era precautions, several countries in Asia are sticking closely to zero-COVID rules.
China has continued to exercise stringent controls to clamp down any potential COVID outbreak in the country, including tight border restrictions, mass testing, exhaustive contact tracing, and sudden city-wide lockdowns, having already locked down more than 20 million people in 2022 under strict home orders. The country is currently hosting nearly 3,000 athletes at the Beijing Winter Olympics, many of whom have criticized the strict quarantine and testing protocols that many Chinese people are still subject to everyday.
Hong Kong has enforced similarly strict border controls and virus restrictions for most of the past two years. Unlike China, however, the Omicron variant has fueled record-high caseloads in Hong Kong with infections now doubling every three days, calling into question whether or not the city can maintain its tried-and-tested COVID containment measures.
Experts have voiced concerns that low natural immunity to COVID and a high number of elderly people who are unvaccinated puts citizens in places like Hong Kong in a more vulnerable position than it had to be in.
But cities and countries in Southeast Asia, such as Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, have greatly loosened their entry requirements to vaccinated travelers or people coming from specific countries, in a bid to boost the region’s floundering tourism industry.
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