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Empire State Development hosts webinar to explain mask and vaccine mandate to businesses

Free masks and hand sanitizer given to people early in the pandemic
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Free masks and hand sanitizer given to people early in the pandemic

Empire State Development held a webinar for businesses on Tuesday afternoon to review and answer questions about New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s mandate that masks must be worn in all indoor public spaces unless a vaccine requirement is implemented.

Citing a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced the new mask mandate Friday. Defending the move, Hochul said her oath of office demands she protect the health and wellbeing of state residents.

“This is a temporary measure to get us through the holiday surge and we’ll come out at the end of this and hopefully look back and say we were able to beat this back or at least keep it from escalating at a scale that we cannot handle. And that’s what I’m trying so hard to avoid because I do want to keep our businesses open and that is my priority after protecting the health of New Yorkers.”

New York’s new Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett told those attending Tuesday’s Empire State Development webinar that there is an escalating winter COVID surge.

“It’s still the Delta variant that made its appearance in July that’s going up but we now have another variant in the wings called Omicron. We haven’t yet seen its impact but we need to prepare for it.”

Bassett added the policy announced by Governor Hochul is good public health and straightforward.

“In public indoor places, which we define as any place that’s not a private residence, people must either wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status or to enter that venue the owner/operator can also choose vaccination so that all people who are inside have been fully vaccinated. We are asking that business operators take a decision on one or the other.”

Moderator Noah Rayman, an advisor at Empire State Development, fielded questions that were submitted. One asked Dr. Bassett to clarify part of the policy.

“Someone asks: we’re a small museum. Can we adopt one policy for our visitors and staff working in gallery and another for staff working in our business office upstairs?”

Dr. Bassett responds, “A venue is either all masked or all vaccinated. So I’m not quite sure how your business operation works but there should be no blending of the two standards. They’d have to be separate unblended places. Separate entrances.”

Rayman asks another submitted question.

“There’s one question here that relates to how we define a public place. The question here is a private business like a manufacturing facility with 70 plus employees included as a public...?”

Bassett interrupts to answer, “Yes. We define a public place as any non-residential venue. So it doesn’t matter if it’s privately owned. If it’s not a private residence it’s a public place.”

The state defines being fully vaccinated as receiving the single Johnson and Johnson or both Moderna and Pfizer shots.

Boosters are not currently included in the state definition of fully vaccinated. If masks are chosen as an option individuals in a closed office may remove them while those working in cubicles or open spaces must wear them. Diners in restaurants may only remove masks when actively eating.

Assistant Secretary for Economic Development Jane Wiesenberg says the state’s strategy is to blunt a potential holiday surge.

“The goal here is to take short term action so that we can avoid what you guys all saw which was shutdowns, capacity restrictions. Because we know what an economic toll those took on your businesses and your downtowns and we want to avoid that to the greatest extent possible. And that’s why we’re moving forward with this policy for the next couple of weeks.”

The mask or vaccine requirement is effective until January 15th at which time the state will reevaluate the policy. At least a dozen counties have said they won’t enforce the mandate.

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