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Indoor mask mandate to expire Thursday as COVID-19 cases steadily decline, governor announces

As New York approaches a “new phase of the pandemic,” Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that the state mask-or-vaccine requirement for indoor businesses will be lifted Thursday.

The decision of whether to enact any mask mandates will now be left up to individual counties or businesses, Ms. Hochul said.

“New Yorkers, this is what we’ve waited for,” she said.

The governor cited data on the number of cases, daily positivity rate and hospitalizations as the basis for the decision. She said each metric is now back below the levels seen in early December and credited the state’s high vaccination rates for limiting hospitalizations.

A mask mandate remains in effect in certain places, such as health care settings, schools, state-regulated adult care facilities and highly crowded public areas like train stations, subways and airports.

Ms. Hochul said the question of masks in schools is the one she most commonly receives. She said an assessment on that issue will be made the first week of March based on the latest metrics.

She also said the state will prioritize testing for when students return to school after the upcoming midwinter break.

Neighboring states New Jersey and Connecticut have announced firm dates for when mask mandates in schools will be lifted. Ms. Hochul it’s a “very strong possibility” that if data remains on a level similar to where it currently stands, New York’s school mask mandate could be lifted in early March and said New York is on timelines similar to the neighboring states’.

Mandated masking or proof of vaccination for businesses was reinstated Dec. 13 as COVID-19 cases began to rise in the region due to the omicron variant. Cases went on to hit the highest levels recorded during the pandemic in late December and early January, climbing past 6,000 per day at one point in Suffolk County and over 90,000 across the state in one day. The mandate was originally set to run through Jan. 15, but was extended to the end of the month and then again to Feb. 10.

Cases in Suffolk County have averaged at 429 per day over the week from Feb. 1-7, a dramatic drop from one month earlier, when cases from Jan.1-7 averaged over 5,600 per day. The number of cases from Feb. 1-7 is now on par with levels seen in mid-November.

Hospitalizations in Suffolk County stood at 358 on Monday and nine fatalities were reported.

Ms. Hochul and state health commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett both encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated.

“Parents should feel confident that this is a safe vaccine,” Dr. Bassett said, adding that vaccines remain “absolutely critical to our response.”

Ms. Hochul said she expects varying degrees of mask wearing to continue across the state. She said people should use their judgment on what they feel safe with based on the environment they’re in and their own personal health and degree of risk.

“We have to respect each individual’s right to assess their own risk,” she said. “You don’t know if someone has a child with asthma at home, an elderly parent living with them and they want to continue taking every step they can to protect themselves.”

At Tuesday night’s Riverhead Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Dr. Augustine Tornatore said the governor met with education officials earlier that day and made clear the mask mandate would continue through at least February break.

He said the New York State Council of School Superintendents had requested guidance on how to transition to mask optional.

“NYSCOSS, which is the organization that I belong to, which is the school superintendent organization, we did reach out to ask that when districts do have the ability to go mask optional, what metrics would be put in place and what we would need to follow regarding that, so we are awaiting guidance from that,” he said.

Ms. Hochul said Wednesday the state will be working on adapting that guidance to assist districts.

Board member Christoper Dorr, who has opposed any mask requirement since the school year began and voted against the district’s original reopening plan, read a resolution that was added to the agenda Tuesday to revise the district’s reopening plan to remove a mask mandate at the time the state mandate is lifted.

“My concerns are if the governor removes the mask mandate for schools on Feb. 21, we don’t meet again until the end of March, so as soon as she pulls off the mask mandate for schools, we should in turn remove the mask mandate for our schools,” Mr. Dorr said.

Fellow board member Colin Palmer said the board could hold a special meeting at that time.“We can’t guess what it’s going to be like in two weeks,” he said.

Fellow board member Virginia Healy agreed that it’s time to go mask optional.

“We see what’s happening in surrounding states like New Jersey and they’re giving March 7,” Ms. Healy said. “Now I’m of the mindset that we will have an opportunity even if we have to have a special meeting or something like that to see when that happens. But I’m in agreement that it would be time to say that we could have mask optional because I think by the time that she does make that decision for the state, the rates will be low enough.”

The board voted 3-2 in favor of the resolution, but it did not pass since it did not receive four votes. Mr. Dorr, Ms. Healy and Brian Connelly voted in favor, while Mr. Palmer and Matthew Wallace voted against it. Board member Therese Zuhoski and board president Laurie Downs were absent, so only five board members were in attendance.