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New York mask mandate to take effect Monday

A KN95 mask.
Josh Landes

Beginning Monday, New York State will mandate masks be worn in public indoor spaces. The mandate announced by Governor Kathy Hochul Friday comes as COVID-19 overloads hospitals across the state during the holiday season.

Seven months after then Governor Andrew Cuomo relaxed mask requirements across New York, his successor is reinstating a policy as the state is experiencing a winter surge in COVID cases.

A day after the state Department of Health restricted non-urgent health procedures at 32 hospitals due to a dwindling amount of staffed acute care beds, Governor Kathy Hochul said it was unvaccinated New Yorkers who are driving the latest spike in infections.

“This is a crisis of the unvaccinated. Those are the individuals are ten times more likely to be in our hospitals creating undue stress on those poor healthcare workers who have been through hell and back. And this is where I get angry. They cannot sustain this any longer. And people in need of healthcare, somebody who is experiencing a heart attack, should not be turned away from the hospital because a bed is being taken by someone who has not been vaccinated,” said Hochul.

Hochul’s new mandate will require masks or face coverings to be worn in all indoor public places statewide unless businesses or venues implement a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

The Democrat said the enforcement of the mandate would be up to the local counties. Businesses that violate the mandate could face a $1,000 fine.

In the hours after Hochul’s announcement, county leaders were divided on the issue along political lines.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, a Democrat, applauded Friday’s announcement. McCoy, who had not called a State of Emergency previously despite a surge in cases, said in part:

“I have continually said that any kind of mask or vaccine requirement would only be truly effective if it’s done at least on a regional basis.”

But in next door Rensselaer County, Republican County Executive Steve McLaughlin called the mandate an over-reach, adding the county will not utilize resources to enforce the mandate. He said in part:

“If the state wants to enforce the mandate, the state will need to utilize state resources for those actions.”

Governor Hochul said she spoke with the Jefferson County administrator before making Friday’s announcement. Jefferson, along with six other North Country counties, declared a joint state of emergency Wednesday due to the surge in cases.

Hochul told reporters in New York City Friday that she didn’t expect everyone to follow the mandate.

“Not everybody will, I guarantee not everybody will. But the majority will. I believe the majority of county leaders and citizens will realize, ‘You know what? I hadn’t thought of, I wasn’t going to do this, but if I want to go shopping for my groceries, I want to go get some holiday presents, I want to go out to a restaurant, I have to put on a mask now. I might not have before.’ But I think if people put this in context of what we went through before when you weren’t allowed to leave your home? Run into the store to grab the toilet paper, stand six feet apart, you’re not sure if the virus is on the shopping bag? I just want people to have a reminder of what we went through and what they endured,” said Hochul.

Heather Briccetti, the President and CEO of The Business Council of New York State, reacted to the announcement on WAMC’s Roundtable Friday.

While she said many businesses were already requiring masking in common areas regardless of vaccination status, she expects some resistance from customers.

“Unfortunately, where you’ve had prolonged periods where there hasn’t been the norm of people wearing masks, we’re going to see that resistance again and businesses are going to be forced to be in the position of having to do enforcement,” said Briccetti. “It being a statewide mask mandate is something you can say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s the law, that’s what it is.’ Now the wild card is, ‘OK, you don’t want to wear a mask. Now you have to show me your vaccine card.’”

Melissa Fleischut, President and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, said her organization was collecting questions from members for state leaders.

“What’s the situation with sitting around to eat or drink, and also we’re getting some questions about kids. So right now, does everybody have to…the idea that kids are two weeks past a second dose is going to be really a small percentage as of Monday…in that 5 to 11-year-old range, so it would be acceptable for us to have a different rule for them, or not? So that’s something we need clarification on,” said Fleischut.

Hochul said she wanted to encourage people to keep up their shopping and dining habits but to go about it in a “smart, smart way.”

“I want to have maximum flexibility, particularly restaurants and bars, to understand that we’re not looking to have anything like what they’ve experienced last go-around. No shutdowns, and this is a pre-emptive strike to make sure that we can protect people, stop this from spreading – particularly with the unknown characteristics of the new variant,” said Hochul.

The policy will be revisited on January 15th.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.