Hochul lifts mask mandate for businesses; says it could end for schools by early March

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ALBANY, NY (WSKG) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday the statewide mask mandate adopted to help combat COVID-19 will end Thursday.

But she said for now, schoolchildren will still need to wear face coverings.

Hochul, citing a 93% drop in COVID-19 infection rates since the peak of the omicron variant on Jan. 7, and hospitalization rates declining from a high of 12,000 in mid-January to about 4,600 today, says it’s time to end the statewide mandate.

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. (Darren McGee/Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Office)

“At this time, we say it is the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor business,” said Hochul. She added that local governments and businesses will be able to make the decision for themselves whether to require masks.

Hochul said individuals are also free to wear masks.

The requirement remains in place, though, for all health care settings, including hospitals and nursing homes, and on public transportation, including airplanes, trains and buses.

Schoolchildren and teachers will also still be required to wear masks for at least a little while longer. Hochul said that after consulting with school leaders and health experts, she wants to wait until after the upcoming winter break before deciding whether to drop the mandate.

She said parents will be required to test their children the first Monday after the vacation, and then three days later. She said in the first week of March, she will assess all of the data and make a decision.

“This is all about looking out for the health of our children,” Hochul said.

Schools have complained that they have not been given clear guidance on testing, quarantining and other pandemic-related protocols. Hochul promised to clarify the rules going forward.

The state’s Business Council praised the governor’s decision.

The group’s president, Heather Briccetti, said in a statement that while business obeyed the mandates, they hope the easing of the restrictions will “encourage New Yorkers to continue to support New York businesses still recovering from the pandemic”.

The governor’s announcement comes at a time when neighboring states New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts are ending mask mandates, including in schools. But the federal Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky said it’s too soon to end mask requirements for schoolchildren.

Hochul said she remains concerned with the low vaccination rate for 5- to 11-year-olds, which is about 35%, compared with around 85% for the general population.

She also did not rule out reimposing rules in the future, if there is another wave of the virus.

“The pandemic is not over,” she said.