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As mask mandate goes into effect, many local governments say they can't, or won't, enforce it

Kevin P. Coughlin
Office of the Governor
State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett and Gov. Kathy Hochul give a COVID-19 briefing

Starting today, New Yorkers are required to wear masks in all indoor public places, unless businesses or venues require proof of vaccination. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the move Friday, in the midst of a new surge of COVID-19.

Hochul said she didn’t want to put a new mandate into place, but increasing cases and hospitalizations left her with no choice.

“I never wanted a situation where the beds are being filled with people who are on ventilators and very sick with Covid, and therefore people with other life threatening conditions like heart attacks are turned down necessary medical treatment,” Hochul said Sunday in western New York, one of the hardest hit areas of the state.

Hochul says this mandate is ultimately about bringing down the number of cases and easing the strain on a healthcare system that some say is on the brink of collapse.

“It doesn’t have to be that big a deal. It truly doesn’t,” Hochul said. “We’re just asking people to do something that is common sense that we believe will help save lives and ultimately drive down the infections, allow our hospitals to be able to handle everybody, get back to elective surgeries. There’s a real simple answer, my friends: get vaccinated, get boosted.”

The mandate applies both patrons and staff of businesses until January 15. Violators face civil and criminal penalties, and fines up to $1,000. Local health departments are being asked to enforce the rules, but that’s a big ask for a small county. And some counties, like Madison County, won’t enforce it.

"We don’t have the staff,” said Madison County Board Chairman John Becker. “Our staff has worked through Covid. They’ve worked seven days a week. They have Covid overload. We don’t want to send the sheriff’s out after anybody, we don’t want to send probation after anybody."

Becker said the county will continue education about vaccinations and mask wearing, but calls this move an example of the disconnect that exists between Albany and Upstate counties.

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon agrees that enforcement is near impossible, but suggested some probation department officers could be used in that capacity. But before any of that happens, the county will go over the new rules with businesses impacted by the directive.

"We'll spend more time getting our questions answered, then we’ll talk to various businesses and groups to explain their choices. Certainly any type of effort like this is going to be a work in progress."

Ultimately, McMahon said the mandate interferes with county’s plans for expanding testing in the face of continued high caseload numbers. But he wouldn’t go as far as suggesting this is government overreaction.

"I think what you’re looking at is many communities are in that substantial or high case range, and I understand the need and pressure for government to act,” he said. “I just would have incorporated a testing element."

McMahon says his biggest concern in all of this is how the vaccination or mask policy affects the hospitality industry, which he says still hasn’t fully recovered from the pandemic.

“We’re going to work very closely with the hospitality industry to see that this doesn’t slow down the recovery,” he said. “But I’m concerned.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.