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Hochul lifts mask mandate for businesses, says it could end for schools by early March

Madison Ruffo
WRVO Public Media

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that the statewide mask mandate, adopted to help combat COVID-19, will end Thursday. But a mandate for masks in schools will continue until at least early March.

Hochul, citing a 93% drop in COVID-19 infection rates since the peak of the omicron variant on January 7 — and hospitalization rates declining from a high of 12,000 in mid-January to around 4,600 as of now — said it’s time to end the statewide mask mandate, effective Thursday.

“At this time we say it is the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor business,” said Hochul, who said local governments and businesses will be able to make the decision for themselves whether or not to require masks.

Hochul said individuals are also free to continue to wear masks, and should make choices based on their "personal comfort level.” She said those decisions should be respected by others.

The mask requirement will remain in place for all health care settings, including hospitals and nursing homes, and on public transportation, including airplanes, trains and buses.

School children and teachers will also still be required to wear masks for a little while longer. Hochul, after consulting with school leaders and health experts, said she wants to wait until after the upcoming mid-winter break before deciding whether to drop the mandate.

She said parents will be required to test their children the first Monday after the vacation, and then three days later. She said in the first week of March, she will assess all of the data and make a decision.

She said schools are different than in restaurants or the workplace, and children are required to spend all day in close proximity to each other.

“Kids are in a very concentrated setting, and also adults can make their own decisions. Children still need adults to look out for their health,” Hochul said. “This is all about looking out for the health of our children.”

Hochul said she remains concerned with the low vaccination rate for kids ages 5-to-11 years old, at around 35%, compared with around 85% for those over 18.

Schools have complained that they have not been given clear guidance on testing, quarantining and other COVID-related protocols. Hochul promised to clarify the rules going forward.

The state’s Business Council praised the governor’s decision. The group’s president, Heather Briccetti said in a statement that while business obeyed the mandates that they hope the easing of the restrictions will “encourage New Yorkers to continue to support New York businesses still recovering from the pandemic."

But Republicans in state government criticized the continued mask mandate for school children. Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt called it "outrageous" that the governor offered no clear "off-ramp" for ending the rule.

The state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, said she agrees with the governor’s "prudent" strategy. She said even though the omicron variant was milder, hospitalization rates increased during the surge, especially for unvaccinated children.

"This has become a polarized conversation, even within the medical community," said Bassett. "But I’m confident that we are looking at a whole range of facts, and we’re looking at the right ones."

The governor’s announcement comes at a time when neighboring states of New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts are ending mask mandates, including in schools. But the director of the Centers for Disease Control, Rochelle Walensky, said it’s too soon to end mask requirements for school children.

Hochul did not rule out re-imposing rules in the future, if there is another wave of the virus.

“The pandemic is not over,” she said.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.