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COVID mask mandates in New York could be in flux

February 8, 2022 GMT

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York’s governor and health officials are deciding whether to end or extend two COVID-19 mask mandates, one requiring face coverings in schools, the other mandating them in most other public indoor settings, like grocery stores, shops and offices.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, plans to announce Wednesday which rules will stay in place as the state emerges from a deadly wave of cases, fueled by the omicron variant.

Hochul met Tuesday with school administrators and teacher unions. She has been hinting that statewide masking requirements for school staff and students — put into place before the school year began — will remain for now. Hochul has said she wants more kids to get vaccinated before she drops rules requiring masks in classrooms.

The broader masking order, though, which has only been in place since December, might be coming to an end. Hochul has been re-evaluating that order every two weeks.

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During a legislative budget hearing Tuesday, Republican lawmakers pressed state health commissioner Mary Bassett to end the mask mandate in schools, too.

Here’s a look at where masks are required in New York as of Tuesday and how that could change.

WHO MUST MASK UP?

Nearly everyone over the age of 2 is required to wear masks in New York in any indoor public place that doesn’t require proof of vaccination for entry.

There is an exception for people who can’t medically tolerate a face covering or mask.

The mandate doesn’t apply in private homes, but does include indoor workplaces at businesses that don’t require workers to be vaccinated. People can take their masks off to eat in restaurants.

Students, teachers and staff at public elementary and secondary schools must also wear masks.

WHO MADE THESE RULES?

The state health commissioner got the power to require face coverings in certain settings, including schools, under a regulation approved by a vote of the state’s Public Health and Health Planning Council in late August.

The power of the commissioner and the governor to mandate masks has been challenged in court. One lower court judge on Long Island ruled recently that the state’s constitution didn’t give either the power to mandate masks, but an appeals court put that decision on hold for now while it evaluates the issue.

DO THESE MANDATES HAVE AN EXPIRATION DATE?

The general mask mandate for public places is set to expire Feb. 10, unless the administration extends it.

Bassett’s authority to require masks in schools will sunset on Feb. 21, but that could be extended, too, by executive order. New York state Department of Health spokesperson Jill Montag said Monday that regulation is “expected to be renewed.”

WHY IS NEW YORK LEANING TOWARD KEEPING SCHOOLKIDS MASKED?

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Many Republican lawmakers, as well as some school leaders, argue that masks make it hard for kids to socially interact and that mandates are overreach at a time when the state’s COVID-19 surge has eased.

But Bassett said Tuesday that state health officials are focused on protecting children at a time when public health experts warn that vaccination rates among children remain low and that the threat of COVID-19 hasn’t lessened enough.

Bassett said the administration is looking at overall COVID-19 hospitalization and infection trends rather than looking at a single “magic number” for when COVID-19 rates will be low enough to lift the mask mandate at schools.

More children and teachers are getting infected now than were at the start of the school year, when the masking rule was put in place, despite the easing of the omicron wave.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools.

WHAT ARE OTHER STATES DOING?

New York is among a minority of states that require most people to wear masks in indoor public places.

Other states, including New Jersey, plan to lift indoor masking requirements in schools by the end of February or Early March.

California said it’s ending its indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people next week, but keeping in place the mandate for schoolchildren.