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NY to implement indoor mask mandate for public places

New York Governor Kathy Hochul
Screenshot 12-10-21
New York Governor Kathy Hochul

New York Governor Kathy Hochul, responding to spiking COVID-19 rates in some parts of the state, is enacting a statewide indoor mask mandate in public places effective on Monday. She calls it a “pre-emptive” strike to avoid an economic shutdown.

Hochul says stores, restaurants, theaters and other businesses and venues can avoid requiring masks if they check all patrons for proof that they are fully vaccinated.

People are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after they have received their first dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine and two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna shots.

“We’re entering a time of uncertainty, and we could either plateau here or our cases could escalate beyond control,” Hochul said. “We are heading upward in a direction that I find is no longer sustainable.”

Hochul had previously resisted statewide mandates, saying that it is up to local governments to decide whether residents should have to wear masks or show proof of vaccination.

But she says with the prevalence of the delta variant of the coronavirus and evidence that there is community spread of the newer omicron variant – both happening during the holiday season – it’s a “perfect storm” for infections to spike even higher.

The state health department reports that the infection rate is around 10% in the Buffalo and the Finger Lakes regions, and higher than 8% in the North Country, and Mohawk Valley.

Thirty two hospitals across the state have more than 90% of their beds occupied, and the governor has already ordered them to suspend elective surgeries.

Hochul made her remarks in New York City, which for months has required both masks and proof of vaccination for all indoor settings. New York City’s rate of infection has been far below other parts of the state, and is now at around 2.5 percent.

New York City also has higher vaccination rates than many other parts of the state. Hochul says the latest surge of the virus is being fueled by those who have so far resisted vaccination. The vast majority of those hospitalized and seriously ill with COVID-19 are the unvaccinated. Hochul says those who have not yet received their shots are contributing to continued spread and breakthrough infections experienced by the fully vaccinated.

“This was completely avoidable,” Hochul said. “This is a crisis of the unvaccinated.”

Business groups reacted positively, as did the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union which represents many front-facing workers, saying it could help avoid another economic shutdown and save lives. The state’s Business Council issued a plea to patrons to not get into confrontations with business owners who require the masks or proof of vacation.

But Republicans in the Legislature criticized the new restrictions.

Assembly GOP Minority Leader Will Barclay, in a statement, says with 80% of adults in New York now fully vaccinated, people should not be “force-fed” another statewide mandate with very little notice.

Hochul’s political opponents also critiqued the plan. Democratic Congressman Tom Suozzi, who is running against Hochul in the primary for governor, says she lacks a comprehensive plan for dealing with the virus and that “New Yorkers deserve better than a piecemeal press approach.”

Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, a Republican candidate for governor, says Hochul’s policies toward COVID are inconsistent, and has “moved the goal posts” for New Yorkers who are desperate to return to normalcy.

Hochul says she is leaving enforcement of the new mandates up to local governments for now. But she says there will be stiff penalties for noncompliance.

“There is a $1,000 fine for those who don’t comply,” the governor said.

“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, "Albany County Executive Dan McCoy said in a statement following Hochul's announcement. "As we see new daily cases of COVID spike here in Albany County, and across the Capital Region and the State, and as the Omicron variant spreads, I applaud Governor Hochul for demonstrating leadership in the face of a pandemic that has forced all of us to make difficult decisions that prioritize the health and safety of our people. This statewide policy will help us stem the tide of new infections, which will prevent more hospitalizations and deaths as we approach the winter months.”

"As cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, I applaud the leadership of Governor Hochul in taking additional precautions to keep New Yorkers safe and healthy as we head into the winter," said Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan. "The Ulster County Department of Health will work with the New York State Department of Health to implement these new measures. Our goal remains to keep our schools and economy open and running safely along with continuing to bolster our vaccine and booster efforts."

Republican Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin says his county will not utilize resources to enforce the new mandate. He says if the state wants to enforce it, "the state will need to utilize state resources for those actions."

“This is the wrong direction for the state to be taking, especially given the innumerable orders, policy changes and directives already made during the past two years," McLaughlin said. "This is an over-reach and it comes at a time when residents and businesses are already struggling.”

“Our Health Department is already dealing with an increase in contact tracing of cases, conducting three vaccination clinics each week and also handling the many other duties and responsibilities for our department," said the county's Public Health Director Mary Fran Wachunas. "We simply do not have the staff to deal with the latest mandate by the state or enforcement of the mandate. We will remain focused on our current duties.”

The new rules will be reevaluated on January 15.

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