Inside Gov. Hochul’s Decision to Lift ‘Mask or Vax’ Rule in New York

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s announcement, expected on Wednesday, comes after she has been satisfied with trend lines on hospital capacity and positivity rates.

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ALBANY, N.Y. — As the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus fueled a sudden surge in cases in mid-December, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York moved aggressively to try to blunt its rapid spread.

She imposed a mask-or-vaccine mandate, requiring businesses to ask for proof of full vaccination or require mask wearing at all times.

The mandate was implemented with little controversy in places like New York City, which already had stringent mask rules. But it also became a political quagmire for Ms. Hochul, drawing legal challenges, refusals to enforce the rule in conservative corners of the state and criticism from one of her Democratic primary rivals.

On Wednesday, Ms. Hochul is expected to announce that she will let the mask mandate expire this week, a watershed moment in the state’s coronavirus pandemic response as the Omicron variant, now known to cause milder effects than scientists originally understood, continues to recede.

The governor, state officials said, was not swayed by politics or even the weight of neighboring states, also led by Democratic governors, easing mask rules this week.

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State officials said that Ms. Hochul was basing her decision purely on the latest data and consultations with public health experts, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, and talks with hospital leaders, labor groups and local officials.

By Tuesday, the governor became comfortable with the latest metrics, which indicated bed capacity at hospitals had improved and the statewide positivity rate was at about 4 percent, down from a peak of 23 percent on Jan. 2.

The lifting of the mandate would have far-reaching impact on many public settings statewide, including businesses such as retail shops, restaurants and malls, as well as workplaces. None would now be required to enforce mask wearing or ask for proof of vaccination, unless they still wished to do so or were required to under other local rules.

The change could be a boon for companies struggling to attract workers back to their offices. The Omicron surge had derailed many return-to-office plans over the winter, forcing many parts of Manhattan’s commercial centers to remain eerily empty over the past few months.

Some business leaders said that the rule requiring masks in workplaces further delayed those plans, arguing that workers preferred to work remotely than be required to wear masks at their desks.

“People are operating fine remotely and they just don’t want to come back to the office wearing masks,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president and chief executive of Partnership for New York City, an influential business group. “The feeling is they might as well be on Zoom. Assuming it’s safe, employers would be glad to get rid of the mask mandate and hope that it will encourage a broader return to the office.”

Even though lifting the so-called mask-or-vax mandate is seen as a turning point in the state’s virus response, there were still certain things Ms. Hochul’s move would not do.

A separate mask mandate in New York schools is still in effect. State health officials said they expect to renew the regulation, which expires on Feb. 21, that gives them the authority to issue the mandate.

But masking in schools has become increasingly contentious, sparking heated feuds among parents, teachers and students over public health and individual liberties. Ms. Hochul said on Monday that she hoped to eventually ease mask rules in schools, but that the state needed more time to scrutinize public health metrics.

“I am optimistic that we’re trending in that direction, but I still need the time,” said Ms. Hochul, who met virtually with a group of school officials on Tuesday afternoon.

Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Certain local, federal and other requirements around masking in specific settings would also be unaffected, meaning masks would still be required on trains, airplanes and buses, as well as health care facilities, such as hospitals and nursing homes.

In New York City, for example, proof of vaccination is required to dine indoors, attend events at arenas, work out at gyms and go to the movies. That requirement has been in place through a program known as “Key to NYC,” which was implemented through an executive order from the mayor. The order has been renewed every five days, most recently on Tuesday.

Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Adams, said that the administration would not comment on any policy changes until Ms. Hochul made a formal announcement on the mask mandate.

“We are continuing to follow the science and the guidance of public health professionals to keep New Yorkers safe,” he said. “We encourage all New Yorkers to continue to wear masks when indoors or in crowded spaces and to get vaccinated and boosted to stop the spread.”

Officials in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have all announced that they would end mask requirements for students and school employees over the coming weeks, underscoring an intentional shift by officials to begin treating the virus as a part of daily life nearly two years into the pandemic.

The cascade of recent mask announcements seemed to stem from conversations that took place within the National Governors Association, and a recent meeting with the White House. Follow-up calls last week between the chiefs of staff of various governors, including Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, the vice chairman of the association, created additional momentum.

On Monday, Mr. Murphy, a Democrat who had imposed some of the country’s strictest pandemic-era mandates, announced that he would eliminate the state’s school mask mandate in the second week of March. Democratic leaders in other states followed shortly after, including Connecticut, which said its in-school mask mandate would expire by Feb. 28, and Delaware and Oregon, both of which will end their mandates by March 31.

Even so, the details of mask mandates, and the politics around them, have varied from state to state.

New Jersey, for example, has not had an indoor mask mandate since Memorial Day; there are no vaccination-to-enter requirements at gyms or restaurants, except in Newark, which has imposed stricter restrictions than the rest of the state.

The move in New York — where more than 67,000 people have died from the coronavirus — comes as the state’s seven-day average of cases has dropped to its lowest level since Nov. 30, with hospitalizations also on the decline.

The virus-related restrictions in New York have ebbed and flowed over the past year as officials tinkered with and rejiggered mandates in response to case numbers.

Ms. Hochul’s mandate in December faced backlash in more conservative and rural pockets of the state where vaccination rates were trailing and mask wearing was not as routine. It sparked one high-profile political flare-up on Long Island, where the recently elected Republican executive in Nassau County, Bruce Blakeman, vocally defied the requirement.

Some of the pushback amounted mostly to political rhetoric, but a court challenge to Ms. Hochul’s mask rules seemed a more credible threat. A judge had struck down the state’s mask mandate before an appeals court judge intervened and temporarily reinstated the rule while it was being appealed in court.

Ms. Hochul’s announcement on Wednesday is expected to put to rest some of the legal uncertainty over the mandate, even though school districts statewide are still awaiting clarity on whether masks will continue to be required in classrooms.

Reporting was contributed by Grace Ashford, Lola Fadulu, Sharon Otterman, Dana Rubinstein and Tracey Tully.

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