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Mask rules still in effect at State Capitol, despite CDC rules changes

Jason Smith
WRVO News (file photo)

Wednesday marked the easing of many COVID-19 restrictions in New York state, but at the State Capitol, many of those rules remain in place, including mandatory masks in some circumstances.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the state would comply with new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rules that say fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks or practice social distancing.

Earlier this month, Cuomo had announced many rules on indoor and outdoor gatherings would be eased, and capacity restrictions for restaurants, stores, gyms and offices would be lifted as long as 6 feet of social distancing can be maintained.  

“We are at a point now where we are going to take a major step forward in reopening,” Cuomo said on May 3.  

But the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate said they are not ready to give up the mask requirement just yet.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, both Democrats, said they are easing capacity limits in the Assembly and Senate chambers, but masks will still be required during session and in all of the legislative offices and common workspaces.

Members will still be allowed to attend session remotely, if they choose to do so.

At a news conference held by Republican lawmakers on an unrelated topic, Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, a Republican from Westchester, said as a fully vaccinated person, he plans to abide by the new CDC rules when possible and not wear a mask when it is not needed. Speaking before the new Senate and Assembly rules were announced, Byrne said he will be respectful of others and comply with whatever the rules are in the Assembly.

“Right now, I do my best to be spaced (from others) whenever possible, just to be considerate of everyone else,” he said.

Byrne said if Sergeant-at-Arms Wayne Jackson asks him to wear his mask in the Assembly chamber, he will gladly comply.

“I respect the heck out of Wayne Jackson, and I will put my mask on,” Byrne said.

Sen. Phil Boyle, a Republican from Long Island, said it’s not enough for the governor to say that New York will comply with the CDC changes. He said restaurant and shop owners, as well as other employers, are still confused and need more specific guidance.

Boyle said he’s received a “barrage” of phone calls from constituents with questions about the new rules and how to enforce them.  

“He gave out many executive orders getting into the minutiae, but not this,” Boyle said. “The governor needs to issue serious, specific guidelines to tell New York business people what they need to do.” 

Cuomo’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.

While the lawmakers control the rules for the spaces that they occupy at the Capitol, it is the governor’s administration that has the authority to open or close the Capitol building and surrounding state buildings.

Byrne said he thinks the Capitol needs to immediately become accessible to the public.

“Open up the Capitol, it’s the people’s house,” Byrne said.

In addition to the building’s closure, one of the main roads leading to the Capitol and adjacent Empire State Plaza also remains barricaded and blocked to traffic, and other entrances to the Capitol are lined with chain-link fences. Those barriers were erected after the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. At the time, law enforcement officials in Albany feared other government buildings might be targeted.

Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, from the Buffalo region, said it’s time to take down those barriers and reopen the Capitol with safety protocols in place.  

“We’re saying kids can go back to school, we’re saying people can go to sporting events, but you can’t come to your own state Capitol," Ortt said. “The optics of that to me are lazy, terrible, dangerous -- pick any adjective you want. But the Capitol should be reopened.”  

A spokesman for the Office of General Services, which has the authority over the Capitol and other state buildings, said an announcement on a potential reopening is coming very “soon."

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.