New York on Thursday officially will end the state’s strict mask mandate for businesses, making it the latest Democrat-led state to roll back pandemic-era restrictions amid the recent drop in Covid-19 cases.
“We are now approaching a new phase in this pandemic,” Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday. “At this time we say that is the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor businesses and let counties, cities and businesses to make their own decisions on what they want to do with respect to ‘mask or the vaccination’ requirement.”
But Hochul said the state’s mask mandate will remain in effect for New York schools — where face covering requirements have become a major point of contention — child care centers, public transit, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, nursing homes and health care facilities.
The governor, who announced the policy update at a Manhattan briefing, said the school mandate will be revisited in early March. It was scheduled to expire on Feb. 21.
The announcement comes as states across the country are scaling back their Covid mandates. California is likely to pare back its restrictions next week, and Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware have also done so in recent weeks.
Responding to a question on why New York appeared to be the lone tri-state holdout on school masks, she insisted their timelines for lifting mandates were “very close.” Both New Jersey and Connecticut, however, have set definite dates for lifting the face covering requirement in schools.
“It’s everyone’s personal comfort level,” Hochul said, saying it will be up to businesses or individuals to decide whether they want to continue to wear masks.
Some Covid restrictions in New York will remain in place. New York City also has a vaccine mandate for restaurants and entertainment venues in effect. It would be up to New York City Mayor Eric Adams to adjust that mandate, and he has not indicated any immediate plans to do so.
Reviewing mask mandate in schools
As for the future of masks in schools, Hochul said she would be examining several metrics, from Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people, pediatric hospitalizations and vaccinations, after students returned from their midwinter break Feb. 28.
She added the state would be deploying tests to K-12 students, but did not specify if families were required to test their children, as opposed to being encouraged to do so.
With other states now moving to end their own mask mandates, Hochul has faced increasing pressure to end her “mask or vax” policy, which has been plagued by compliance issues and legal challenges. She said she felt comfortable lifting the requirement for businesses on Thursday given the declining Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations — which hit record highs in early January.
She, however, stressed that she will “retain the flexibility to make adjustments if necessary.”
The governor instituted the mask mandate on a temporary basis in December just days after New York identified its first cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Under the policy, everyone age 2 and older has been required to wear masks in indoor public settings, except at businesses or venues that mandate proof of full vaccination — or face potential civil and criminal penalties, including a maximum fine of $1,000 per incident. But the state has not enforced the policy, and many counties said they would also not do so.
Ending the policy
The “mask or vax” policy was set to be reassessed in mid-January, but later extended as Covid cases surged in wake of holiday gatherings to Feb. 1 — and then more recently to Feb. 10.
But from the beginning, enforcement of the policy — which is left up to local health departments — has varied across the state. Some county leaders even argued that it was “practically not enforceable.” And it’s unclear what fines, if any, have been issued to violators.
The mask mandate faced even more scrutiny in January after a Nassau County judge ruled that it violates the state constitution and is therefore not enforceable.
The Hochul administration was quick to challenge the ruling — and temporarily block the decision, which would have effectively ended the mandate, amid the appeal process. But not before it sparked further confusion in schools.
Since the ruling, school officials have received the brunt of criticism over the mask requirement, as some families and students alike have taken to school board meetings and others have staged walkouts to voice their dissatisfaction.
The New York State Council of School Superintendents sent a letter to Health Commissioner Mary Bassett last week, pressing the state for “reasonable, understandable, and achievable metrics based on recommendations from medical professionals for when masking rules will eventually be changed.”
Bassett, testifying before lawmakers on Tuesday, said the state had yet to determine a date on which the school mask mandate would end.
Vaccination rates among 5- to 11-year-olds remain low, with just over 30 percent having completed their vaccination series.
“This has become a polarized conversation even within the medical community,” Bassett said. “I think it’s always best when we try and stick with facts. Unfortunately, even the facts can become contested.”
In a meeting with education organizations on Tuesday, Hochul expressed a desire to see data after students return from the February break.
“They prefer that it’d be a state on-or-off requirement,” Hochul said of school officials on Wednesday. “It really takes them out of the decision-making forcing them to analyze all the metrics and the hospitalizations and the infection rates and all the other factors that we have assess, so that’s why that made sense.”
Following other states
On Wednesday, Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said the state’s school mask mandate will expire on Feb. 28 — the same date that Connecticut will also drop its school mask policy.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that the state will ends its school mask policy on March 7.
“It’s time to give our kids a sense of normalcy,” Baker said at a statehouse press conference, adding that while Covid-19 “will be with us for the foreseeable future,” advances in vaccines, treatments and testing “are mitigating the harm.”
Like many states, Baker stressed that he and state education officials “fully support” students and staff who choose to wear masks past the end of the month.
Some Democratic lawmakers and activists in Massachusetts expressed alarm that the state is dropping its mask mandate right after students return from a weeklong vacation.
But Baker, who pushed to keep kids in classrooms even during the worst of the Omicron surge, said schools are “very rarely” sources of transmission.
“We’ve put the kids and their educators’ safety, and kids’ education, at the forefront of all of our decisions,” Baker said. “That is true today.”