NY school mask mandate continues at least 3 more weeks

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Gov. Kathy Hochul unmasks to begin a news conference on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday lifted her mask mandate for businesses, effective Thursday, but left it in place for schools through at least early March.

The mask requirement also remains in effect as a COVID-control measure in state-regulated health facilities and elder-care facilities; jails and prisons; childcare centers; homeless shelters; domestic violence shelters; and in buses, trains and transportation facilities.

Counties, cities and businesses can choose to require masks indoors, but aside from the numerous exceptions, the state is no longer mandating the practice.

At a morning news conference, the governor noted that every metric of COVID-19 is substantially better now in the second week of February than it was a month ago, when the rapidly spreading omicron variant infected huge numbers of New Yorkers.

Between Dec. 8 and Feb. 8, a total of 2,052,823 positive tests were confirmed in laboratories in New York state. An uncounted additional number of infections were detected with the millions of self-administered at-home test kits being used during that period.

“We’re not done, but this is trending in a very, very good direction,” Hochul said.

The mask mandate for schoolchildren has been very unpopular with some students and parents, but Hochul said it’s a needed precautionary measure to avoid the need to go to remote learning.

Hochul said the COVID metrics and the school mask mandate will be re-evaluated in early March, a week after public school students return from February recess.

Reporters tried to pin Hochul down on the timing. She responded that the COVID metrics are going in the right direction but could change in four weeks. The delay will allow a better analysis of the numerous factors that measure the severity and direction of the pandemic and also give time to prepare contingency plans for schools if yet another surge should strike the state.

“There will not be one number that says yes or no,” she said. “It is going to be an assessment of all these factors that have guided us throughout.”

Neighboring states are lifting the school mask mandate as well — Massachusetts on Feb. 28, Connecticut no later than Feb. 28 and New Jersey on March 7. Vermont will consider lifting the ban later this month. Pennsylvania school districts make their own decisions on mask policies.

Republicans had harsh words for Democrat Hochul’s continuation of the school mask mandate:

“Patently absurd.” — Nick Langworthy

“Cruel, abusive.” — Liz Joy

“Unthinkable.” — Robert Smullen

“Authoritarian, hypocrisy.” — Elise Stefanik

“Absolutely outrageous.” — Rob Ort

A reporter asked Hochul what she thought businesses would do with the option to require their customers to mask up, which has proved a tough sell at times. They’ll need to do what they think best, she replied.

That may result in some confusion. In one local example, Crossgates Mall announced later Wednesday that it would no longer require masks in common areas of the mall, but individual tenant businesses might still require masks inside their stores.

As for the general public?

“I think we’ll see varying degrees of mask-wearing,” Hochul said. “I think it’s people’s personal comfort level.”

PROGRESS REPORT

Hochul is basing her decision on measures of COVID activity such as numbers and rates of new infections and number of COVID-positive people hospitalized.

These are all much better now than at the start of 2022, but not uniformly better.

New York City and nearby suburban counties in Long Island and the Hudson Valley are now doing markedly better than the rest of the state. They also were hit first by the omicron variant and saw their infection rates explode in December as upstate remained relatively calm.

Some statistics showing the upstate-downstate divide as of Tuesday:

  • The seven-day average positive COVID test rate was 2.6% in New York City’s five counties and 7.9% in the eight-county Capital Region.
  • The seven-day average of new infections per 100,000 residents was 26.4 per day in New York City and 47.2 in the Capital Region.
  • In New York City, 1,901 COVID-positive people were hospitalized, down 71% from a peak of 6,523 on Jan. 11; in the Capital Region, 249 were hospitalized, down 42% from a recent peak of 432 on Jan. 18.

Some statewide measures of progress:

  • Only 51% of the 4,670 COVID-positive hospital inpatients Tuesday originally were admitted because of COVID symptoms; the rest had been admitted for other reasons and were suffering minor symptoms of the virus or no symptoms at all.
  • A total of 6,041 positive tests were lab-confirmed on Tuesday, compared with a one-day peak of 90,132 on Jan 7.
  • The seven-day positive test rate dropped from 22.5% on Jan. 5 to 4.1% on Tuesday.
  • The number of new cases per day per 100,000 population, which peaked at 461 on Jan. 7, was down to 30.9 on Tuesday.
By John Cropley

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