ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that the state will end a COVID-19 mandate requiring face coverings in most indoor public settings, but will keep masking rules in place in schools for now.
The mask mandate for places like grocery stores, shops and offices was put in place Dec. 10 as the omicron variant of the virus began infecting huge numbers of New Yorkers. It was set to expire Thursday unless the Democrat’s administration extended it.
Speaking from her office in New York City, Hochul said infection rates have since declined to a level where it is safe to rescind the order.
“Given the declining cases, given the declining hospitalizations, that is why we feel comfortable to lift this, in effect tomorrow,” Hochul said.
“This fight is not over, we’re not surrendering. This is not disarmament,” she added, “but again the trends are very, very positive.”
Hochul had been hinting that she would let the mandate lapse. Other Democratic governors have taken similar steps in recent days, ending masking rules in public places or in schools. The White House has also signaled it is beginning to prepare for a less-restrictive phase of the national COVID response.
Masks will still be required in some places in New York, including in health care facilities, certain types of shelters and public transit. Private businesses will also be free to set their own masking rules for employees and customers.
Hochul said the state will revisit the question of whether to continue requiring masks in schools the first week in March, after many children return to classrooms following planned winter breaks.
She said millions of COVID-19 tests would be distributed to schoolchildren, with the intent that kids get tested after the break. Data from those tests will help inform the state’s next steps.
“After the break, after we have kids tested, we’re going to make an assessment in the first week of March,” Hochul said.
Hochul administration officials didn’t immediately provide specifics about the testing plan Wednesday.
Hochul had previously said she would like to see vaccination rates for children improve before she does away with that statewide mandate, which has been in place since August.
About 30% of children aged five to 11 are fully vaccinated according to state data, compared with just over two-thirds of 12- to 17-year-olds.
New York’s broader masking rule was initially set to expire weeks ago, but had been extended twice while state officials waited for the omicron wave to subside.
The end of the state mandate won’t stop counties and municipalities from imposing their own COVID-19 mandates, either regarding masks or vaccines, Hochul said.
New York City, for example, still has a rule in place making vaccination mandatory for anyone in a workplace where there is more than one employee. It bans unvaccinated people from eating indoors at restaurants or entering theaters or other entertainment venues.
Those mandates, and the state’s masking rules, have all been the subject of legal challenges.
The change in the rules isn’t likely to have an immediate impact on personal habit. There were no rules requiring masks in New York City all summer and through most of autumn, yet the vast majority of people still wore them while shopping indoors, as a matter of courtesy, if not personal safety.
The Broadway League, which represents theaters in New York City, said its patrons would still have to wear masks through at least the end of April. Other big city venues suggested a less stringent approach. The Barclays Center, where the Brooklyn Nets play, said masks are only “strongly recommended” for patrons.
“We 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,” said Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett wore her mask during the news conference. Hochul did not.
Hochul met Tuesday with school administrators and teacher unions to talk about when and how the state might ease the school masking mandate.
She noted that when masking rules were put in place last summer, teachers and many parents were reluctant about a return to in-person learning. Those fears haven’t entirely gone away.
“We are all excited about the possibility of lifting these restrictions, but Governor Hochul’s thoughtful and prudent approach is the right one,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing teachers in New York City.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools.
About 4,700 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in hospitals statewide as of Tuesday. That’s below a peak of nearly 12,700 on Jan. 11, but still double the amount of patients hospitalized Nov. 21.
Some hospitals in rural, upstate parts of New York are still facing high hospitalization rates that are straining capacity: Hochul’s administration has halted nonessential elective surgeries at 23 of roughly 200 hospitals in New York as of last Friday.