New York state will no longer require proof of vaccination or mask wearing at indoor businesses and venues, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday, easing some pandemic restrictions as COVID cases and hospitalizations continue to plunge.
Citing a 94% statewide drop in positive COVID cases from December and a 63% drop in hospitalizations from last month, the governor announced that, starting Thursday, indoor mask requirements enacted in December will be lifted.
“This is what we’ve been waiting for — tremendous progress after two long years and we’re not done,” Hochul said at a news conference in Manhattan. “But this is trending in a very, very good direction and that’s why we’re now approaching a new phase in this pandemic.”
A mask mandate in New York schools remains in effect, and Hochul said she would need more time to examine public health indicators.
While the so-called mask-or-vax mandate for businesses stirred little controversy in the five boroughs, it’s been subject to pushback and legal challenges elsewhere in New York.
Discussions over mandates intensified in recent days after neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut announced that they would lift mask requirements at schools over the coming weeks. Within hours of the initial announcement in New Jersey, other governors announced plans to ease restrictions, including in California, which is slated to end its indoor mask mandate next week.
In New York City, proof of vaccination is still required for indoor dining, events at arenas, gyms, theaters, museums and any other indoor entertainment as part of an August initiative by former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The “Key to NYC” executive order has been renewed repeatedly by Mayor Eric Adams since he took office last month. Starting January 29, it required anyone over the age of 5 to show proof of full vaccination to participate in indoor activities. For adults 18 and older, proof of identification along with proof of vaccination is required.
“We are continuing to follow the science and the guidance of public help professionals to keep New Yorkers safe,” said Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for the mayor. “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.”
There have been a lot of changes and developments to the mask discourse over the last few weeks, making it difficult to keep track of the state of things. Here’s what you need to know:
Does this mean I don’t ever have to wear a mask?
Private businesses can still require patrons to wear a mask to enter. Local and federal requirements, along with some state-imposed rules, remain unaffected by Hochul’s decision, meaning that mask wearing would still be required at certain places, like airports, bus and train stations, hospitals, nursing homes and public transportation.
It’s best to carry a clean mask when you go out in public. And check the doors or windows of a store or location to see if there’s a sign requiring a mask to enter. If you’re unsure, ask someone who works there.
What about schools? Do children still have to wear masks?
Yes, at least for now. School staff and students are still required to wear masks to help curb the spread of COVID. State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett told a panel of state lawmakers Tuesday that “no decision” has been made on school mask mandates even as neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut plan to phase out their requirements over the coming weeks.
But a change could be on the horizon if COVID cases continue to decline, Hochul said Wednesday. The school mask mandate is slated to expire on Feb. 21, just as city students are home for winter break.
Parents and guardians will be given at-home COVID tests before the break begins and be required to test their children on their first day back to school and again on the third day, the governor said. The state plans to look at the testing data early next month to determine the future of the mask mandate in schools, she added.
In the meantime, Hochul continued to urge New Yorkers to get their children vaccinated, which has continued to lag behind adults. In the five boroughs, just 63% of children eligible for the vaccine have received at least one shot and roughly half have both doses, according to city Health Department data.
Do I still have to wear a mask on the subway?
Yes. Hochul’s decision doesn’t change the mask requirements imposed by the MTA, which follows federal guidelines that are in effect until at least March 18. Masks are still required at indoor train stations and aboard the subway and on buses. If you accidentally left your mask in your other jacket pocket and don’t have one on you, ask for one at the subway station booth — they’re free.
What do the doctors say?
The best way to reduce the number of people infected by COVID is to continue wearing a mask indoors, particularly a “respirator,” such as an N95 or KN95, which lower the odds of catching the virus significantly, said Jessica Justman, an associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who specializes in infectious diseases.
But public health experts have become increasingly divided over whether school mask mandates should continue. Citing falling infection rates, low rates of hospitalization among children and the toll masks impose on students, some have argued that it’s time to drop masks at schools. But others argue that face coverings should still be worn until COVID cases decline further and vaccination rates go up.
And while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all students over the age of 2 and school staff should wear well-fitted masks regardless of vaccination status to mitigate the spread of the virus, two years of on-and-off mandates and mixed messages has led to exhaustion for some.
“There seems to be less appetite for mandates,” said Justman. “Maybe we need to push really hard on the public messaging side so that people will want to wear masks to continue to protect themselves.”