Governor Kathy Hochul announced she will not extend her statewide indoor mask mandate after it expires Thursday amid receding COVID infection and hospitalization rates.
Face coverings will still be required in schools in the coming weeks as Hochul wants to wait until after the midwinter break to decide on whether she will make changes to that rule.
“It is indeed a beautiful day here in New York, as we see the storm clouds are parting, as are the COVID clouds parting,” Hochul said during a COVID briefing on Feb. 9.
Local governments and businesses can continue to keep mask rules if they so choose, according to Hochul.
Masks will still be required at state-regulated facilities, including nursing homes, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, schools, as well as public transit and airports.
The governor’s mask-or-vaccine mandate started on Dec. 13 requiring people to don face coverings in all public indoor settings except if businesses or venues had a vaccine requirement.
The decision by the governor and the state Department of Health came as the first cases of the more contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 were detected in New York, fueling a steep rise in cases and hospitalizations over the holidays.
Infections rose to more than 90,000 a day in early January and hospitalizations peaked at north of 12,000 a few days later, but both numbers have since dropped to 4,300 cases and 5,000 hospitalizations as of Feb. 7, according to DOH.
Hochul twice extended her mandate’s deadline to Feb. 10, but the rule was challenged in court by opponents who argued that DOH did not have the authority to implement it.
The state Supreme Court on Long Island overturned the mandate on Jan. 24, but an appellate court judge put a stay on the lower court’s decision the next day as the governor’s administration sought an appeal.
The current masking requirement for schools dates back to Hochul’s first day in office in August and is set to expire on Feb. 21, at the outset of the midwinter break.
The governor met with education and parent leaders in a closed-door session Tuesday, and she wants to wait until early March after the break before making the final call on that rule.
The state will send test kits to families across the state before the break and Hochul wants kids to get tested the day after they come back and again three days later.
By the end of the first week back on Friday, March 4, she will assess the mask mandate based on positivity rates, hospitalizations, vaccinations, and “global trends” of the virus, she said before making a call on whether to keep it, saying that there is a “very strong possibility” she will lift it if trends remain similar to what they are now.
“After the break, after we had kids tested, we are going to make an assessment that first week in March based on all the metrics,” she said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal indoor face covering at schools, regardless of vaccination status, but several neighboring states have announced they will lift their mask requirements in the coming weeks, including New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Vaccination rates among young children have remained stubbornly low across the state, since the shots were authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for 5-11-year-olds in October.
Only 37.5% of that youngest eligible age bracket had at least one dose of the vaccine as of Tuesday, compared to 75.7% for adolescents aged 12-17, and adults at more than 95%.
“I think we can do better,” said Hochul. “This is a message I’d like to get out to all the parents, as well as the pediatricians and other influencers on families’ health care decisions: Please get your kids vaccinated. Let’s give them that extra suit of armor when the time comes they can be boosted.”