Effective Thursday, a New York State mandate that people wear masks or show proof of vaccination at restaurants, gyms, theaters, offices and stores will be lifted.
The decision, Gov. Kathy Hochul said, was motivated by improving Covid-19 measurements, including test-positive rates, hospitalizations, number of cases per 100,000 people, and vaccinations.
Individual businesses, as well as towns, cities, and counties, will now be able to make their own decisions on masking and vaccine requirements. Masks will still be required in health care settings such as hospitals and nursing homes, as well as on public transportation systems.
"We had a mask-or-vax requirement for businesses. It was an emergency temporary measure, put in place two months ago," Governor Hochul said during a press conference. "At this time, we say that it is the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor businesses. Let counties, cities, businesses make their own decisions on what to do. . . . Given declining cases, declining hospitalizations, that is why it is safe to lift this."
A statement from East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc on Wednesday afternoon stated that a mask requirement will remain in place at town facilities “for now.” The announcement cites a review of the federal Centers for Disease Control recommendations and discussion with Dr. Bruce Polsky, the town’s consulting epidemiologist. All town employees and visitors to town facilities are required to wear a mask.
For schools, however, Governor Hochul is maintaining the mandatory mask mandate that was in place as part of statewide school-reopening rules instituted in August 2021. She will re-evaluate that decision after public school children return from winter breaks during the week of Feb. 28, she said. Meanwhile, more at-home test kits will be distributed and families will be encouraged to test and report results to the schools. "There will be very clear guidance so schools will know what to do."
"After the break, after our kids are tested, we are going to make an assessment," the governor said. "We will look at that combined picture. There will not be one number that says yes or no."
She also implored parents to have their children vaccinated, and pledged that vaccination sites will remain open and more pop-up clinics will be added.
These measures were announced in conjunction with what Governor Hochul called a "winter toolkit" for continuing the fight against Covid: Protecting the "most vulnerable" people, increasing access to vaccines, boosters, and testing; strengthening the health system, empowering local leaders, and investing resources into solving "long-Covid" issues.
"Make no mistake: While we're moving in the right direction, this pandemic isn't over and our new winter toolkit shows us the path forward," Governor Hochul said.
On Jan. 12, she reported, there were about 12,600 people hospitalized across the state, but by Wednesday, there had been a 63-percent drop, down to 4,600. Around that same time, she said, the test-positive rate was at 23 percent, but now it's about 3.7 percent. Cases are down, too, from 381 per 100,000 state residents to 32 — the fourth-lowest in the nation.
In East Hampton Town, officials said the seven-day average rate of new cases per 100,000 people is 16.5, which is above the “low transmission” level as defined by the C.D.C. In areas with low transmission, where cases per 100,000 people are no more than 10, the C.D.C. recommends that unvaccinated people be required to wear masks indoors, and that fully vaccinated people may go without masks. The town will continue a cautious approach, and will wait until the number of COVID cases falls below 10 per 100,000 before modifying or lifting the overall indoor mask mandate at town facilities.
Governor Hochul called the downward trends "what we've been waiting for."
"I will always retain the flexibility to make adjustments as necessary, " she said. "I also want to deal in the reality that we have a very good picture painted over the last few weeks."
With reporting by Christopher Walsh