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Blowback to NY’s new statewide COVID-19 mask mandate

The outside of the New York state COVID-19 vaccination site at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland is adorned with a "Vaccinate New York" banner as well as the flags of the United States and New York state.
Jim Levulis
The New York state COVID-19 vaccination site at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland.

Questions emerged Monday over whether new COVID-19 mask and vaccination requirements imposed by New York Governor Kathy Hochul will be carried out by the businesses who must comply with them and the local governments who are being asked to enforce them.

The rising rate of transmission of the virus in portions of upstate New York prompted the new rules, which require that businesses and public venues require either universal masking, or a requirement that all patrons show proof of vaccination. The two policies cannot be combined.

On Monday, many businesses across the state posted new signs explaining the new ordinance. Many seemed to opt for a mask requirement instead of asking customers whether they are vaccinated.

Governor Hochul was in New York City, where the COVID transmission rate is relatively low, at around 2.5%, compared to nearly 10% in Western New York. Hochul held a news conference on an ongoing project to rebuild the JFK airport, but she answered questions from journalists about the new mandates.

Some upstate counties have announced they are not enforcing the mask mandate, including Livingston, south of Rochester, Madison, near Syracuse, Rensselaer in the Capital Region, and Dutchess and Rockland Counties, in the Hudson Valley. Hochul says for now, she will not use state health department’s inspectors to try to get the counties to comply.

“I’m going to monitor what’s going on in the various counties,” Hochul said. “But I’m not attempting to be heavy handed. I have a close relationship with the [New York State] Association of Counties. I called them first while I was still contemplating this. I said ‘I want you to know that this is something I believe in.’ They did not give me pushback. They understood.”

But she says she believes the majority of the state’s 62 counties will carry out the new rules, and she says some have asked the state to act to provide “cover” for them on a controversial topic. New York City, and some upstate counties including Erie, Schenectady and Albany, have previously imposed restrictions, including indoor mask mandates and proof of vaccination requirements.

“I do have faith in New Yorkers,” Hochul said. “I believe the vast majority want to do what’s right, they want to put this pandemic behind us. They want to make sure we never have to go back to the days of being in lockdown.”

The new rules include fines of $1,000, for businesses or individual who fail to comply.

The plan received criticism from Hochul political opponent, Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, who is challenging her in the Democratic primary for governor. Suozzi says he is not against the mask mandate, but he does object to the way it’s being rolled out.

“Lack of a comprehensive plan is causing chaos and confusion and disarray,” said Suozzi, who said the governor needs to “sell” her plan to the public.

Suozzi says Hochul should be holding daily comprehensive briefings with a COVID task force, and doing more to promote vaccine booster sites.

Hochul’s predecessor, Governor Andrew Cuomo, won plaudits for his daily briefings on the coronavirus in 2020, and even won an Emmy for his presentations. Cuomo resigned in disgrace last August over multiple scandals, including accusations of sexual harassment from multiple women. His Emmy has since been rescinded.

The Congressman was joined by Charlie Cassara, who leads the U.S. Fitness Coalition. He says gym owners are scrambling to comply with the rules. He says memberships often run month-to-month, and customers are angry that new rules requiring they be masked while exercising are occurring halfway through December.

“We received approximately about 100 phone calls and emails today from gym owners who have lost anywhere from 85 to 100 of their members,” said, Cassara who added they are asking to put their memberships on pause or be reimbursed for the remainder of the month. “Because they don’t either want to wear a mask or they don’t want to show proof of vaccination.”

Hochul says new restrictions imposed on nearly three dozen hospitals across the state, banning elective surgery are starting to work. She says bed capacity at the facilities, which had been at less than 10%, is slowly starting to ease. She’s also been dealing with staffing shortages at many hospitals, and New York’s National Guard has been deployed at some short-staffed nursing homes. Also, nurses from Northwell Health on Long Island have been temporarily transferred to the Buffalo area to help with staffing shortages there.

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.