NEW YORK — How much longer will you need to wear a mask in New York City schools and businesses?
In the coming weeks, New Jersey and Connecticut will end their statewide mask mandate in schools, and Hochul announced Wednesday she is soon ending the state's mask mandate for businesses, raising questions about whether those changes will affect New York City.
The mandate for businesses is set to expire Feb. 10, and Hochul said Tuesday that she will let that happen, ending the rule that businesses either require employees to be vaccinated or enforce mask wearing.
The schools mandate, however, will not expire as scheduled on Feb. 21, Hochul said Wednesday. Instead, Hochul said she would reassess the school masking rule in the first week of March, after students return from winter break that begins Feb. 21.
A little over a third of New York children 11 years old or younger have received at least one vaccine dose, as have about three-fourths of children 12 to 17 years old, according to state data.
"I know we can do better than that," Hochul said Monday during an appearance in Ulster County. "Let's get those younger kids vaccinated."
Public health experts say that it is important for the city to keep some independence from the state in exercising control over public health measures, including masking, since they say it is a key way to prevent the spread of the virus.
But Jessica Justman, an associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said it may be time for the city to consider moving beyond mandates, toward broader educational efforts, as legal challenges breed confusion over masking rules.
“We’re at a stage where there's less and less appetite for mandates, and I think we need to fill that vacuum with more consistent public messaging about how vaccines and masks protect us,” Justman said.
Here’s what you need to know about the state’s mask mandates — and how they affect New York City.
Does NYC have its own business mask mandate?
No. In December, Hochul issued a statewide rule for all businesses: Either require everyone who comes into the business to be vaccinated, or require everyone to wear a mask. Businesses that violate the law can receive fines in the thousands of dollars.
New York City does require vaccination proof to enter a variety of businesses — including restaurants, entertainment venues and fitness centers.
But on Thursday, when Hochul's statewide mask mandate ends, city shops and offices will be left to implement their own masking rules for patrons and workers.
The city must abide by the state’s health rules, Justman said, but is in many cases free to implement its own more stringent rules.
The overlapping spheres of authority for public health rules are not set in stone, she said.
“A lot of this comes down to policy negotiations, political conversations at the state level and at the city level to work out an agreement,” Justman said.
In an emailed statement, Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for the mayor, did not say whether the city was considering instituting its own masking rules.
“We encourage all New Yorkers to continue to wear high-quality masks when indoors or in crowded spaces and to get vaccinated and boosted to stop the spread,” Levy said.
What about NYC schools?
Since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, all students and teachers in city public schools have been required to wear masks in nearly all school settings.
The city has credited mask wearing, in conjunction with its other safety measures, with keeping positivity rates in the schools extremely low, despite frustration from parents over the past two academic years over frequent classroom closures.
Mayor Eric Adams has signaled that he believes the city should keep its mask mandate for schools. After a judge initially struck down Hochul’s statewide school mask mandate last month, some districts immediately rescinded their mask rules. In a radio interview, Adams said he disagreed with those moves.
“I believe it’s unfortunate that it was struck down, and I believe those jurisdictions that are using it as an opportunity to remove mandates are making a big mistake,” Adams told 1010 WINS. “We’re going to continue our mandates in schools.”
Justman said she expected the city to gradually change its masking rules — and other pandemic health measures — but cautioned that the public would likely feel exasperated if the rules swung too quickly in either direction.
“I think you can do some careful messaging, do some course-corrections, but you can't zig-zag all over the place,” Justman said.
Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the city’s education department, did not respond to emailed questions about the city’s plans around mask mandates in schools.
“If and when the state removes their mandate from school, we will have more to say,” Styer said.
Aren’t these mandates facing legal challenges?
They are, from a lawsuit claiming that the governor does not have authority to issue emergency health rules without approval from the state legislature — although the claims in the suit against the mask mandate for businesses are now moot.
The state lost the first round of that legal battle in January, when a state judge said that the mandates, while “well aimed,” ran afoul of the legislature’s move last year to strip then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo of his emergency pandemic powers. That judge overturned the mask mandate, leading opponents of the mask mandate to declare victory.
Shortly after, however, the state appealed the ruling, and successfully urged an appellate judge to stay the order of the judge in the lower court, effectively putting the mask mandate back into effect while the appeals process plays out.
The statewide mask mandate for schools is still in place, for now.