County governments grapple with enforcing NY mask mandate

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — Since the statewide mask mandate was announced last week, New York’s counties have grappled with how to implement it. Certain counties have embraced the mandate. Others have refused to carry it out.

Several upstate counties have expressed concern over their ability to enforce the mandate properly, given limited staff and resources.

During a recent information session, Broome County Executive Jason Garnar answered questions from local businesses owners.

Local businesses have begun implementing the statewide mask mandate. (Tom Magnarelli/WSKG)

The questions ranged from particular exceptions to the rule, to how to deal with customers who refuse to wear masks. Garnar said the mask mandate is the best way to protect businesses in the county.

“I’d rather be in this situation we’re dealing with now than have to see any businesses shut down because of our COVID numbers. I don’t want us to get to that point. And if that means wearing some masks for another month or so, then so be it,” Garnar said.

Garnar said the county’s role is to provide education and support to business owners, but he didn’t say whether fines will be issued to businesses that don’t comply. He added that the sheriff’s office will not be responding to noncompliant businesses.

“When we hear that businesses are not following the mandate correctly, our goal is to educate them and provide resources for them. At the end of the day, I really think that most people are going to follow this,” Garnar said.

Steuben County Executive Jack Wheeler said the county encourages businesses to require masks. But he added that health department staff are stretched thin from working on contact tracing, vaccination clinics, and booster rollout.

“My mom’s a retired nurse, and she’s helping now with case investigations. She’s volunteering her time, that’s how busy we are,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler said that the state is in charge of regulating businesses, not the county. He says that in order for the mandate to work, it needs state enforcement.

“A good policy needs to have teeth to it. And for us locally, we don’t have the capability to do that,” Wheeler said.

If the county receives a complaint about a business not following the mandate, Wheeler said they will pass it along to the state Department of Health. He said right now, the county health department must prioritize contact tracing and getting residents vaccinated.

“We cannot let cases sit un-investigated for days at a time, because we have to respond to mask complaints,” Wheeler said.

The state’s order leaves enforcement up to local health departments.