New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, responding to spiking COVID-19 rates in some parts of the state, is enacting a statewide indoor mask mandate in public places effective on Monday. She called it a “preemptive” strike to avoid an economic shutdown.
Hochul said stores, restaurants, theaters and other businesses and venues can avoid requiring masks if they check all patrons for proof that they are fully vaccinated.
People are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after they have received their first dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna shots.
“We’re entering a time of uncertainty, and we could either plateau here or our cases could escalate beyond control,” Hochul said. “We are heading upward in a direction that I find is no longer sustainable.”
Hochul had previously resisted statewide mandates, saying that it is up to local governments to decide whether residents should have to wear masks or show proof of vaccination.
But she said with the prevalence of the delta variant of the coronavirus and evidence that there is community spread of the newer omicron variant – both happening during the holiday season – it’s a “perfect storm” for infections to spike even higher.
The state health department reports that the infection rate is about 10% in the Buffalo and the Finger Lakes regions, and higher than 8% in the North Country and the Mohawk Valley.
Thirty-two hospitals across the state have more than 90% of their beds occupied, and the governor has already ordered them to suspend elective surgeries.
Hochul made her remarks in New York City, which for months has required both masks and proof of vaccination for all indoor settings. Its rate of infection has been far below other parts of the state, and is now at around 2.5%.
New York City also has higher vaccination rates than many other parts of the state. Hochul said the latest surge of the virus is being fueled by those who have so far resisted vaccination. The vast majority of those hospitalized and seriously ill with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Hochul said those who have not yet received their shots are contributing to continued spread and breakthrough infections experienced by the fully vaccinated.
“This is a crisis of the unvaccinated,” Hochul said. “This was completely avoidable.”
Business groups reacted positively, as did the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents many front-facing workers, saying it could help avoid another economic shutdown and save lives. The state’s Business Council issued a plea to patrons to not get into confrontations with business owners who require the masks or proof of vacation.
But Republicans in the Legislature criticized the new restrictions.
Assembly GOP Minority Leader Will Barclay, in a statement, said with 80% of adults in New York now fully vaccinated, people should not be “force-fed” another statewide mandate with very little notice.
Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt called the announcement “half-baked” and a “complete reversal” of the governor’s previous policies.
Hochul’s political opponents also critiqued the plan. Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is running against Hochul in the primary for governor, said she lacks a comprehensive plan for dealing with the virus and that “New Yorkers deserve better than a piecemeal approach.”
Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican candidate for governor, said Hochul’s policies toward COVID-19 are inconsistent, and that she’s “moved the goal posts” for New Yorkers who are desperate to return to normalcy.
Hochul said she is leaving enforcement of the new mandates up to local governments for now. But she said there will be stiff penalties for noncompliance.
“There is a $1,000 fine for those that don’t comply,” the governor said.
The new rules will be reevaluated on Jan. 15, after the holidays are over.