By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
ALBANY — The state’s indoor mask mandate is back, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Friday.
Face coverings are required in all indoor public places unless the business or venue has implemented a vaccine requirement. The mandate was put back in place in an effort to stem a rising tide of COVID-19 infections, particularly during the holiday season.
The mandate went into effect Dec. 13 and will remain in place until Jan. 15, when it will be reevaluated, Hochul said.
“As governor, my two top priorities are to protect the health of New Yorkers and to protect the health of our economy,” Hochul said. “The temporary measures I am taking today will help accomplish this through the holiday season. We shouldn’t have reached the point where we are confronted with a winter surge, especially with the vaccine at our disposal, and I share many New Yorkers’ frustration that we are not past this pandemic yet.”
The change was made amid a rising surge of COVID-19 infections. Since Thanksgiving, the statewide seven-day average of positive test results increased by 43% and hospitalizations went up by 29%, according to Hochul’s office. The number of vaccinations against the virus rose 2% since Thanksgiving, but Hochul said the increase has not been enough to check the spread of the virus, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates.
“I have warned for weeks that additional steps could be necessary, and now we are at that point based upon three metrics: increasing cases, reduced hospital capacity and insufficient vaccination rates in certain areas,” Hochul said.
Those found not in compliance with the mandate face a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation, Hochul said. Local health departments are tasked with enforcing the mandate.
Businesses that require proof of vaccination against COVID are exempt from the mask mandate.
Acting Health Commissioner Mary Bassett, M.D., said steps need to be taken particularly to address the new virus variants.
“Community spread requires a community-minded solution, as the omicron variant emerges and the overwhelmingly dominant delta variant continues to circulate,” Bassett said. “We have the tools we need to protect against the virus — and now we must ensure we use them. There are tools each individual can use, and there are actions we can take as government. Getting vaccinated protects you, and wearing a mask is how we will better protect each other. Both vaccination and mask-wearing are needed to slow this COVID-19 winter surge.”
Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy supported reimplementation of the mandates.
“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,” McCoy said Friday. “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 Gov. 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.”
Not everyone is happy with the new mandate. Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, came out against the state requirement.
“Enough is enough. With vaccines and boosters readily available to those who want them, and contact tracing technology and testing being more accessible than ever, we do not need a statewide mandate to protect people’s health,” Tague said. “More than that, it is despicable that Gov. Hochul has decided to threaten our people and businesses with a $1,000 fine for any incidents of noncompliance. This mandate will be disastrous for our small businesses, which have had this mandate suddenly thrown into their laps during the critical holiday sales period and will stifle our collective recovery as a state. Protecting public health should be a priority for us all, but it can be done without implementing a statewide mandate that in no way takes into account the unique circumstances of the communities it affects.”
Greg Biryla, Sr., state director of the National Federation of Independent Business/New York, a small business advocacy group, called the mandate “troubling,” particularly as businesses try to rebound from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
“As small businesses continue to grapple with record inflation, workforce shortages and supply chain dysfunction, today’s announcement that employers and employees will be put in the position of enforcing and regulating public health mandates is troubling,” Biryla said. “This holiday season is a crucial time for small businesses holding out hope for 2022 after unprecedented economic disruption of the past two years; NFIB continues to ask all New Yorkers to find new ways to support small business and sustain local commerce.”