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 mandate requiring face coverings in most indoor places, like grocery stores, shops and offices, was put in place Dec. 10 as the Omicron variant of the virus began infecting huge numbers of New Yorkers. It was set to expire Thursday unless the Democrat's administration extended it.
Speaking from her office in New York City, Hochul said infection rates have since declined to a level where it is safe to rescind the broad masking order.
"Given the declining cases, given the declining hospitalizations, that is why we feel comfortable to lift this, in effect tomorrow," Hochul said.
"This fight is not over, we're not surrendering. This is not disarmament," she added, "but again the trends are very, very positive."
Hochul had been hinting for several days that she would let the mandate lapse.
Masks, though, will still be required in some places, including in health care facilities, certain types of shelters and public transit. Private businesses will also be free to set their own masking rules for staff and patrons.
Hochul said the state will revisit the question of whether to continue requiring masks in schools the first week in March, after many children return to classrooms following planned winter breaks in late February.
She said millions of COVID-19 tests would be distributed to schoolchildren, with the intent that kids get tested after the break. 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.
Hochul had previously said she would like to see vaccination rates for children improve before she does away with that statewide mandate, which has been in place since August.
New York's broader masking rule was put in place as Omicron cases began to soar. It was initially set to expire weeks ago, but had been extended twice while state officials waited for the wave to subside.
The end of the state mandate won't stop counties and municipalities from imposing their own COVID-19 mandates, either regarding masks or vaccines, Hochul said.
New York City, for example, still has a rule in place making vaccination mandatory for anyone in a workplace where there is more than one employee. It bans 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 the subject of legal challenges.
The change in the rules also 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, if not personal safety.
"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," said Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
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 that the masking rules were put in place last summer because teachers and many parents, at the time, were reluctant about a return to in-person learning. Those fears haven't entirely gone away.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools.
About 5,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in hospitals statewide as of Monday. That's below a peak of nearly 12,700 on Jan. 11, but still double the amount of patients hospitalized Nov. 21.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.