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NY is lifting its mask mandate. Here’s what it means for businesses and schools

But the mandate will remain in effect in certain areas with high concentrations of people, including public transit, planes, correctional facilities, child care and nursing homes, Hochul said.

And the school mandate in New York will remain in effect at least until early March.

Hochul, who has expressed frustration with the slow rate of vaccinating school-aged children in New York, said school districts will distribute at-home test kits for students to use after returning from the mid-winter recess, which is scheduled for the last full week of February. After that, the state will make a determination on whether the school mandate will stay in place.

“After the break, after we have kids tested, we are going to make an assessment that first week of March,” Hochul said.

Decision comes as COVID cases fall

Hochul’s announcement came as COVID-19 continues to decline throughout the state after a winter surge fueled by the easily spread omicron variant.

At its peak in early January, New York state was reporting an average of more than 75,000 positive tests a day – more than half of which were coming from New York City.

On Monday, the state reported 4,281 new cases, a number that has been steadily falling in recent weeks. But the daily average is hovering around the same level as the peak from April 2020, a testament to how the barometer around public concern has shifted. Deaths and hospitalizations remain high, but the majority of New Yorkers are vaccinated. About 1,600 of the new cases were in the city, according to the state Department of Health.

Hochul said those numbers convinced her now is the right time to roll back the business mandate.

“That is what we have been watching for,” Hochul said of the drop in cases. “That is what we’ve been waiting for. That is what we’ve been talking about. And it’s finally happening.”

NYC can keep mandate in place

Hochul’s decision to rescind the business mandate will have a modest impact on New York City, where vaccination remains required for indoor activities such as dining and performance venues, but does not apply to places of worship and other common businesses.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio first implemented the city’s vaccination rule in August, and current Mayor Eric Adams embraced it upon taking office in January. But New York City officials do not have a mask mandate in place for any indoor space outside of schools.

Local governments, including the city, are still able to implement their own mask or vaccination rules, according to Hochul.

Through a spokesperson, Adams said his administration will continue to “follow the science” and encourage “all New Yorkers to continue to wear high-quality masks when indoors or in crowded spaces and to get vaccinated and boosted to stop the spread.”

But while Hochul says now is the right time to lift the statewide business mandate, it’s a different story when it comes to schools.

The state requirement that students and school employees mask up while on school grounds has been the subject of intense scrutiny from parents, teachers and school superintendents – all of whom have been pushing Hochul’s administration one way or the other on the issue.

Hochul announced Wednesday a plan to distribute home tests to schoolchildren, starting the week before the midwinter break, which for New York City takes place February 21st through the 25th.

Tests will also be distributed the week after the break, and Hochul said parents should plan to test their children twice to help the state understand case numbers among kids:

“We want them to test the day after they come back and again three days later, and let the school know if your child tests positive, keep them home. But by that Friday, just a few days after the children come back, we’ll be able to look at those numbers,” she said.

Hochul added, “We’re going to look at the percent positivity. We’ll also keep an eye on hospital admissions and even pediatric admissions – what’s happening with them? Are they continuing to decline?” before determining whether the school mask mandate will be lifted.

Last week, the state Council of School Superintendents sent a letter to state Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett seeking clarity. The council asked for “clear guidance” based on “reasonable, understandable and achievable metrics” that will determine when and how masking rules will evolve.

On Tuesday, the group met virtually with Hochul and organizations representing school boards and parents. At the meeting, Hochul’s team suggested they will make a decision on masks in schools after the February recess – which lines up with the school mandate’s Feb. 21 expiration.

New York City officials have consistently kept school mask regulations in place regardless of state policy. In June 2021, then-state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker announced the state would drop requirements for masks at schools and camps – but city officials quickly rebuffed the new policy, saying they would continue universal masking requirements at schools under local health regulations.

“If and when the Governor lifts her mandate for schools, then we will have more to say,” a spokesperson for the city Department of Education said in an email Wednesday.

“The CSA appreciates the Governor’s common sense approach,” Mark Cannizzarro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals in NYC public schools, said in a statement. “We are hopeful that circumstances will soon allow for an easing of restrictions while maintaining a safe environment for students and staff.”

Mandate accompanied winter COVID surge

The soon-to-be-rescinded business mandate marked the first major mask requirement imposed by Hochul after she took office in August.

Hochul wasn’t able to implement the requirement on her own, unlike former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the early days of the pandemic, since the governor’s emergency powers had long since expired. So she enlisted the help of the state Department of Health and Commissioner Mary Bassett, who issued an order putting the rule in place in the interest of public health.

The Health Department’s order – and whether it had the authority to issue it – is currently the subject of at least three separate lawsuits, though it remains in effect as the state appeals an initial ruling striking it down.

The appeal is expected to remain ongoing at least until early March, meaning the school mandate could expire before the case is decided.

During her briefing, Hochul repeatedly touted the declining COVID trends while also warning the pandemic is not over – a major reason why the mask mandate will remain in place in schools, train stations and other congregate settings.

“This pandemic is not over,” she said. “It is not over. That is why we’re still going to maintain protections for vulnerable populations in areas where people are very concentrated, because I want them to feel safe.”

Hochul’s opponents were quick to jump on this, including New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. At an unrelated news conference Wednesday, Williams said while he agreed that mandates would need to end eventually, he opposed the timing Hochul’s decision calling the move too “abrupt.”

“[W]e have to open up and move forward a little slower,” Williams said.

Brigid Bergin contributed to this report.

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