Mask mandate ending for New York for indoor public spaces, Gov. Hochul says

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday lifted a mandate requiring a mask or proof of vaccination to enter indoor public places including restaurants, stores, gyms, theaters and offices.

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The move, effective on Thursday, was seen by some as a major step toward returning to normal life as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year.

Hochul is facing another major decision on mask mandates in schools. On Wednesday, she said students would be sent home with test kits and results in the immediate aftermath of winter break, which ends on Feb. 28, would help determine the future of the mandate, along with other metrics.

Hochul’s decision on indoor public places comes as states around the country start to dismantle COVID-19 mitigation measures amid frustration with the pandemic’s continuing impact on daily life.

New Jersey and Connecticut, for instance, will drop their school mask mandates in coming weeks.

The mandate for indoor public places in New York took effect on Dec. 13 as COVID-19 levels started to rise. The omicron variant fueled record-breaking positivity levels and numbers of cases over the subsequent weeks.

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The governor had described it as a temporary measure, and after being extended, it was scheduled to expire on Thursday. COVID-19 levels have dropped sharply in the last few weeks, though they are still not as low as last spring.

Long Island currently has about a 5% seven-day average for positivity, compared to under 1% last May and June. On Monday the region registered 468 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, compared to a low of 30 on June 29.

Long Island hit a high of more than 14,000 new daily cases during the omicron surge, and a positivity average of nearly 27%.

Leading health experts on Long Island were divided this week over whether to end the mandate, which has not been enforced in Nassau or Suffolk counties.

Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health, said: “As cautious and generally as conservative and as pro-mask as I generally am, I do think that rates are dramatically lower. I do think it is time to react and open up in view of the data.”

Dr. Aaron Glatt, chair of the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, agreed that it is “reasonable” to drop the mandate now because fully vaccinated and boosted people have a very low chance of developing serious medical conditions from the virus.

Other area health experts said lifting the mandate now is too soon, especially as the winter weather drives more people indoors. Doing so could provoke another surge, they said.

“Remember omicron is not gone, it’s going down,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.

Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, argued for a “stepped approach” for indoor spaces. That would allow big box stores and other larger businesses to drop the mandate first, given their air ventilation and space for social distancing.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

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