Mask mandate for businesses lifted Thursday, schools’ requirement remains


By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday the mask mandate for most businesses will be lifted Thursday, but masking requirements at schools will remain for the time being. Courtesy of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Office

ALBANY — The mask mandate for most indoor businesses will be lifted Thursday, but the requirement for students and staff in schools will remain for the time being, Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a press briefing Wednesday.

The state will re-evaluate the school mandate in early March.

The lifting of the mask-or-vaccine mandate comes as COVID-19 numbers are dropping in all regions of the state and across all metrics, including infections and hospitalizations, Hochul said.

The current mandate went into effect in mid-December as the number of virus cases began to spike due to the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

“On Dec. 10, we initiated a plan to say that across the state, any business would have the option to require people to be vaccinated or enforce having people wear masks,” Hochul said. “It was a strong statement, but I stand behind it as a way to not have to resort to shutting down businesses when this variant began to spread like wildfire.”

The Omicron spread peaked Jan. 7 but is now declining rapidly.

“Now we have witnessed a 93% drop in cases,” the governor said. “That is what we were waiting for.”

As of Feb. 8, the seven-day average positivity rate was 3.67%, Hochul said.

“Why is this happening? Because New Yorkers and businesses stepped up and did the right thing,” Hochul said.

The Omicron variant is less severe than previous forms of the virus, including the most recent Delta variant, Hochul confirmed.

“Of people who were contracting Delta, 62% of people who were infected ended up in the hospital,” she said. “With the Omicron variant, we see only 3.5% did.”

The high number of vaccinations and booster shots statewide also contributed to the lower number of serious infections, she added.

“Omicron is not considered as severe, but there are people lying in hospitals today because of Omicron, so it is something we still take very, very seriously,” Hochul said.

With COVID metrics down on all fronts and the high number of vaccinations, the decision was made to lift the mask mandate for indoor businesses.

“New Yorkers, this is what we have been waiting for — tremendous progress after two long years,” she said. “We are not done yet, but this is trending in a very, very good direction and that is why we are entering a new phase of this pandemic.”

Municipalities and businesses will still have the option to require masks at their discretion.

“At this time, it is the right decision to lift the mandate for indoor businesses and let counties, cities and businesses make their own decisions on what they want to do with respect to the mask-or-vaccinate requirement,” Hochul said Wednesday. “Given the declining cases, given the declining hospitalizations, that is why we feel comfortable to lift this tomorrow.”

The mandate will remain in place at health care facilities, adult-care facilities, nursing homes, correctional facilities, schools, childcare centers, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters and on public transportation, including buses, trains, subways, airplanes and airports.

“This pandemic is not over and that is why we are going to maintain protections for people in vulnerable places where people are very concentrated,” Hochul said. “I want people to feel safe.”

The requirement for schools — a hot topic statewide — will be re-evaluated a short while after students return from winter break later this month. In the interim, test kits will be handed out to families so they can test their students and retest three days later to ensure they are not infected. The state will also continue to analyze factors such as hospitalizations, infection rates and what is occurring globally before making a decision.

“After the break, after we had kids tested, we are going to make an assessment the first week in March,” Hochul said. “There will not be one number that says yes or no, it will be an assessment of all these factors that have guided us throughout.”

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, decried the decision to retain the school mask mandate.

“Today’s announcement by our governor is no cause for celebration, because it provides no plan whatsoever to end the masking of our children in schools,” Tague said. “Even as other Democrat governors have relented and ended their school mask mandates, Hochul has ignored both the data and public sentiment by needlessly prolonging this harmful and entirely unnecessary policy. Two years of masking has had a marked impact on the development and educational success of our children, and it’s long past time to put an end to this mandate once and for all.”

The National Federation of Independent Businesses cheered the decision for small businesses.

“This is welcome news for New York’s small businesses and our communities, which for nearly two years now have wrestled with ever-changing and taxing public health mandates,” Ashley Ranslow, the organization’s state director, said. “Gov. Hochul’s announcement that the indoor mask-or-vaccine mandate will be lifted is necessary and prudent as other states, including our neighboring states, are easing restrictions and finding a way back to normal.”

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