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Hochul lifts mask mandate for businesses; says it could end for schools by early March

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Darren McGee/Gov. Kathy Hochul's office
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Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said the statewide mask mandate, adopted to help combat COVID-19, will end Thursday.

But she said schoolchildren will still need to wear face coverings, at least until early March.

Hochul cited a 93% drop in COVID-19 infection rates since the peak of the omicron variant on Jan. 7 and a decline in hospitalization rates from a high of 12,000 in mid-January to about 4,600 as she made the announcement.

“At this time, we say it is the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor businesses,” said Hochul, who added local governments and businesses will be able to decide for themselves whether to require masks.

Hochul said individuals are also free to continue to wear masks and should make choices based on their “personal comfort level.” She said those decisions should be respected by others.

The requirement remains in place, though, for all health care settings, including hospitals and nursing homes, and on public transportation, including airplanes, trains and buses.

Schoolchildren and teachers will also still be required to wear masks for at least a little while longer.

Hochul, after consulting with school leaders and health experts, said she wants to wait until after the upcoming winter break before deciding whether to drop the mandate.

She said parents will be required to test their children the first Monday after the break, and again three days later. She said in the first week of March, she will assess all of the data and make a decision.

The governor said schools are different than in restaurants or the workplace, and children are required to spend all day in close proximity to each other.

“Kids are in a very concentrated setting, and also adults can make their own decisions. Children still need adults to look out for their health,” Hochul said. “This is all about looking out for the health of our children.”

Hochul said she remains concerned with the low vaccination rate for 5- to 11-year-olds, which is about 35% compared with around 85% for those older than 18.

Schools have complained that they have not been given clear guidance on testing, quarantining and other pandemic-related protocols. Hochul promised to clarify the rules going forward.

The state’s Business Council praised the governor’s decision.

The group’s president, Heather Briccetti, said in a statement that while businesses obeyed the mandates, they hope the easing of the restrictions will “encourage New Yorkers to continue to support New York businesses still recovering from the pandemic.”

But Republicans in state government criticized the continued mask mandate for schoolchildren. Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt called it “outrageous” that the governor offered no clear “off-ramp” for ending the rule.

The state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, said she agrees with the governor’s “prudent” strategy. She said even though the omicron variant was milder, hospitalization rates increased during the surge, especially for unvaccinated children.

“This has become a polarized conversation, even within the medical community,” Bassett said. “But I’m confident that we are looking at a whole range of facts, and we’re looking at the right ones.”

The governor’s announcement comes at a time when the neighboring states of New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts are ending mask mandates, including in schools. But the federal Centers for Disease Control director, Rochelle Walensky, said it’s too soon to end mask requirements for schoolchildren.

Hochul did not rule out imposing the rules again in the future if there is another wave of the virus. She also said she is going to continue to monitor all of the data.

"This pandemic is not over,” she said.

Copyright 2022 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.