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New York to lift statewide school mask mandate by March 2

Gov. Kathy Hochul gives a COVID-19 briefing in Albany Sunday, February 27, 2022
Mike Groll
Office of the Governor
Gov. Kathy Hochul gives a COVID-19 briefing in Albany Sunday, February 27, 2022

NEW YORK (AP) — New York’s statewide masking requirement in schools will be lifted by March 2, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Sunday, citing a dramatic drop in COVID-19 infections and new federal guidelines.

Hours later, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said he’s considering lifting vaccine mandates on restaurants, bars and theaters by early next week if infections and hospitalizations continue their downward trend.

A mask mandate on the city’s approximately 1 million schoolchildren could also be lifted, Adams said in a statement. The decision won’t come until Friday, following a full week of classes after students in the country’s largest school system return from a weeklong vacation, he said.

The pair of announcements signaled an important turning point for the city and state, once an epicenter of the global pandemic.

“The day has come,” Hochul said at a press conference in Albany.

New guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most Americans can now safely take a break from wearing masks, including students in schools.

“That is why I feel very confident that this is the time to lift the mask requirements,” Hochul said.

The CDC’s guidance said that people who live in low or medium risk counties can stop wearing masks indoors and in schools, if they wish. But those who live in high risk areas should continue to wear masks.

As of Saturday, state officials said the 7-day average for new cases was fewer than 1,671 for the first time since late July. Other metrics have also fallen rapidly, including hospitalizations and deaths.

The CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces aren’t binding, meaning cities and institutions even in areas of low risk may set their own rules. Hochul said counties and cities could keep their own mandates in place, and parents could still choose to send their kids to school in masks.

Several counties in New York are still considered high risk, according to the CDC, including Oswego, Wayne, St. Lawrence, Tompkins, Seneca, Yates and Ontario counties.

Some school superintendents were quick to share the news with students and staff.

"Unless otherwise dictated by the department of health or the government, masking will become optional based on decision making by each family," Hannibal School District Superintendent Christopher Staats said in an email Sunday.

Hochul also said people should respect those people who choose to continue to wear masks.

"We will not stand for any bullying, or ostracization, or harassment of an individual or business or anyone who chooses to wear a mask as we're still going through this," Hochul said, which Staats echoed in his message.

"I am asking that all parents have a discussion with their children, regardless of age, to inform them of what your choice is for their masking," he said. "Everyone must to continue to be respectful to others for their decisions about masking."

The new rules also apply to children 2 years and older in childcare facilities.

Earlier this month, Hochul let a broad mask mandate for most indoor settings expire, but said the schools requirement would remain in place. She had promised to revisit the schools question by the first week of March.

The broad mask mandate was implemented during a COVID-19 surge fueled by the omicron variant in December.

Masks are still required in some places, including public transit, homeless shelters, jails and prisons, adult care facilities and healthcare settings.