Governor says it’s up to counties to enforce new indoor mask mandate

Enforcement of the state’s new mask mandate will come down to individual counties, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday.

The protocol took effect Monday and requires individuals to wear masks in all indoor public places unless businesses or venues implement a vaccine requirement. The mandate was implemented to help curb the spread of COVID-19 as cases steadily climb amid another holiday spike similar to last year.

“We hope that counties will enforce it,” Ms. Hochul said when asked whether counties can choose not to enforce the mandate. “It’s in the best interest of public health. But it also comes down to individual businesses doing the right thing as well. We’re asking businesses to protect their customers and protect their employers.”

The governor tried to downplay reports that some counties in the state would not enforce the mandate and said the “majority” understand it’s a temporary measure to curb rising cases. She said it’s a “minor infringement” that would not have happened if cases didn’t rise.

A spokesperson for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon. The county executive has not commented yet on the state mandate. Newsday reported Monday afternoon that incoming Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman would not enforce the mandate. Blakeman, a Republican, defeated incumbent Democrat Laura Curran in November. He takes office Jan. 1.

Ms. Hochul said she “has faith in New Yorkers” and believes the vast majority want to do what’s right. She said the mandate is about “protecting the health of New Yorkers and the health of the economy.”

The measure is effective until Jan. 15, 2022, at which point the state will revaluate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said consistently maintained that unvaccinated people should wear masks in public indoor settings. The CDC in May had advised vaccinated people could drop their masks, but later revised the policy in late July when the delta variant began driving up cases. Masks have already been required all year in settings like schools and day care centers in New York.

The COVID-19 positivity rate in Suffolk County surged above 7% in recent days. There were 1,227 new cases reported Dec. 11 and 82.8 cases per 100,000. Hospitalizations have climbed to 278 in the county.

Last year, hospitalizations for Long Island steadily climbed starting from November to mid-January, at which point they began to decline.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the likely GOP candidate for governor in 2022, has been an outspoken critic of the governor’s new mask mandate, as have many other Republican officials in the state. Mr. Zeldin has consistently been against government at the federal or state levels imposing any mandates related to masks or vaccines, citing “medical freedom.”

A sign at Tanger Outlets. (Credit: Brianne Ledda)

“I strongly oppose the governor’s unilateral decision to impose a statewide mask mandate,” Mr. Zeldin said Friday. “We need leaders who value the freedoms of their constituents, not ‘government always knows best’ bureaucrats who view constituents as their ‘apostles’. ”

To help businesses and the public navigate the new mandate, the state published a Frequently Asked Questions resource. There’s also links to posters businesses can display either for the vaccination requirement or masks.

The mandate defines an indoor public place as “any indoor space that is not a private residence.” The policy also applies to office spaces.

“If the office does not require proof of vaccination as a condition of entry, everyone must wear masks at all times regardless of vaccination status except when eating, drinking, or alone in an enclosed room,” the guideline says.

The guidance does not allow for a “mix and match” policy where businesses allow unvaccinated individuals to be unmasked but unvaccinated people to wear masks in the same indoor facility. The business must choose to implement a vaccine requirement for everyone or the mask requirement, which applies to patrons and employees.

Businesses such as salons are strongly encouraged to implement proof of vaccination requirement, but the mandate allows customers to briefly remove a mask for services. Employees performing services must wear a mask at all times.

“Taking this action now is critical to slowing the COVID-19 winter surge during the holidays,” said state health commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett. “Each of you can contribute: get vaccinated, get boosted if you are already vaccinated and wear a mask.”