Governor Kathy Hochul’s decision to drop the state’s mask mandate in mass transit Wednesday caught flack from disability rights advocates, who said the move would put people with compromised immune systems further at risk.
Politicians and other critics on social media also lambasted the MTA’s new ad campaign for the revised rules, accusing transit officials and the governor of trying to make light of a contested pandemic policy.
While masking rates in New York City’s subways and buses have been slipping for months, one accessible transit booster worried the changed will be the death knell for the public health measure.
“When you make things optional, people do not do it, that’s unfortunately human nature,” said Eman Rimawi-Doster, an organizer with the non-profit civil rights law firm New York Lawyers for Public Interest.
Rimawi-Doster, who advocates for improving MTA’s paratransit service Access-A-Ride, is immunocompromised, uses a walker, and is a double-amputee, and she said she fears for herself and other vulnerable commuters.
“How can I trust that the person next to me on a bus or a train is actually doing what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “It makes me feel like, if you have a disability you should just stay home — but I can’t, I have a full-time job.”
The head of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled said the MTA should reinstitute a mandate on its own.
“Governor Hochul’s decision to lift the transit mask mandate flies in the face of science and plain common sense,” Joe Rappaport said in a statement. “Masks work, and they are hardly an imposition on riders. The governor’s decision is particularly disturbing in the wake of the predominant BA.5 variant, which spreads rapidly and easily.”
The rate of infections and hospitalizations due to the coronavirus have declined from the most recent peak in July, but are still above low points of this spring, according to state data.
Over the past two years, cases have increased during the colder months as more people congregate indoors.
The latest case numbers per 100,000 across a seven-day average in New York State were 17.9 on Sept. 6, down from a rate of 37.6 on July 17 but still more than twice as high as the low point of the year on March 11 at 8.2, according to the state Department of Health.
Similarly, there were 11.39 hospitalizations per 100,000 on Tuesday, down compared to 14.27 on July 26 but nearly three times the 4.18 rate on March 29.
‘This is not funny’
Several politicians took aim at the governor and the MTA’s updated masking ad campaign.
The public service announcements showed similar yellow signs like the MTA put out earlier in the pandemic, but instead of advising how straphangers should wear masks, the new messaging shows the agency is fine with riders donning the protective gear wrongly or not at all, including one variety with a figure covering only its nose labelled “You do you.”
Starting today, masks will be optional in some places where they had previously been required, including on mass transit. pic.twitter.com/5zTT4uRB6h
— Governor Kathy Hochul (@GovKathyHochul) September 7, 2022
“I’m sorry… but what the actual hell is this,” wrote Manhattan Assemblymember and former candidate for Congress Yuh-Line Niou on Twitter.
“This is not funny. Not to folks with chronic illness and not to us in the city riding trains. People’s health and safety is not funny,” the lawmaker added. “Is this an episode of Black Mirror? @MTA should be ashamed. Why would you promote this?”
“Taking simple, effective steps to prevent transmission is what allows us to resume normalcy. Removing mandates now sends the wrong message,” charged Manhattan state Senator Liz Krueger on the social media site. “Pretending the pandemic is over will only prolong it.”
The governor and transit honchos said the new policy still encourages wearing masks, but pivots from a government mandate to individual responsibility.
“We just need to make sure that this continues to be an environment where people who choose to mask feel respected and don’t feel any pressure to behave differently,” said MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber on Wednesday. “There’s no conformity here, it’s all about personal choice, personal choice is the watchword.”
Hochul justified lifting the two-and-a-half-year-old mandate because COVID cases and hospitalization rates were “stabilizing,” and with the release of a new vaccine booster shot targeting highly-infectious Omicron subvariants.
The Empire State’s chief executive had kept the rules in place for months beyond the national masking rules in transportation, which were thrown out by a federal judge in Florida in April.
The transit mask rules were rarely enforced by police and the rate of straphangers following the directive kept declining over the past year as other public gathering locations no longer required them.
Hochul and the MTA did not provide comment by press time.