ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that the state will end a COVID-19 mandate requiring face coverings in most indoor public settings, but will keep masking rules in place in schools for now.
The mask mandate for places like grocery stores, shops and offices was put in place Dec. 10 as the omicron variant began infecting huge numbers of New Yorkers. It was set to expire Thursday unless the Democrat’s administration extended it.
Hochul said infection rates and hospitalizations have declined to a level where it is safe to rescind the order.
“This fight is not over, we’re not surrendering. This is not disarmament,” she told reporters at her New York City office, “but again the trends are very, very positive.”
Other Democratic governors have taken similar steps in recent days, ending masking mandates in public places or in schools. The White House has also signaled it’s beginning to prepare for a less-restrictive phase of the national pandemic response.
Masks will still be required in some places in New York, including health care facilities, certain types of shelters and public transit. Private businesses will be free to set their own masking rules for employees and customers.
Hochul said the state will revisit the question of whether to continue requiring masks in schools in the first week of March, after many children return to classrooms following planned winter breaks.
Millions of COVID-19 tests will be distributed to schoolchildren, she said, with the intent that kids get tested before or shortly after they return to class. Data from those tests will help inform the state’s next steps.
“After the break, after we have kids tested, we’re going to make an assessment in the first week of March,” Hochul said.
Specifics of the testing plan are still being worked out, the administration said.
Hochul had previously said she would like to see vaccination rates for children improve before she does away with the schools mandate, which has been in place since August.
Only 30% of kids age 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated, according to state data, compared with just over two-thirds of 12- to 17-year-olds.
New York’s broader masking rule was initially set to expire weeks ago, but was extended while state officials waited for the omicron wave to subside.
The end of the state mandate won’t stop counties and municipalities from imposing their own COVID-19 mandates, Hochul said.
New York City made vaccination mandatory for anyone in a workplace with more than one employee. It also banned unvaccinated people from eating indoors at restaurants or entering theaters or other entertainment venues.
Those mandates, and the state’s masking rules, have all been challenged in court.
The change in the rules isn’t likely to have an immediate impact on personal habit. There were no rules requiring masks in New York City all summer and through most of autumn, yet the vast majority of people still wore them while shopping indoors, as a matter of courtesy.
The Broadway League said theatergoers would still have to wear masks through at least the end of April.
Other big city venues suggested a less stringent approach. The Barclays Center, where the Brooklyn Nets play, said masks are only “strongly recommended.”
Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Eric Adams, said the city encourages New Yorkers to keep wearing “high-quality masks when indoors or in crowded spaces.”
State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett wore her mask during the news conference. Hochul did not.
Hochul met Tuesday with school administrators and teacher unions to talk about when and how the state might ease the school masking mandate.
She noted when masking rules were put in place last summer, teachers and many parents were reluctant about a return to in-person learning. Those fears haven’t entirely vanished.
“We are all excited about the possibility of lifting these restrictions, but Gov. Hochul’s thoughtful and prudent approach is the right one,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing teachers in New York City.
New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta called for “clear metrics” that lay out when the mask mandate can be relaxed.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools.
About 4,700 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in hospitals statewide as of Tuesday. That’s below a peak of nearly 12,700 on Jan. 11, but still double the amount of patients hospitalized Nov. 21.
Some hospitals in rural, upstate parts of New York are still facing high hospitalization rates that are straining capacity: Hochul’s administration has halted nonessential elective surgeries at 23 of roughly 200 hospitals in New York as of last Friday.
Roughly 67,700 people have died because of COVID-19 in New York since spring 2020, according to the latest federal data.