Protesters outside Riverhead High School Thursday afternoon. Photo: Alek Lewis

More than 50 people protested outside of Riverhead High School today against the New York State’s school indoor mask mandate and against the school district’s alleged punishing of students who refuse to comply with the mandate.

The protest started around noon on the sidewalk of Harrison Avenue in front of the school. The protesters waved American flags as cars passed by and honked their horns in solidarity. The event was publicized yesterday on Facebook by the Long Island Loud Majority, a right-wing political organization that supports former President Donald Trump and organizes rallies and protests like the Trump caravan that cut through Suffolk in 2020.

The organization of the protest follows a Nassau County State Supreme Court judge’s ruling on Monday that said the New York State Department of Health’s indoor mask mandate was created unconstitutionally. The decision was appealed by Attorney General Letitia James shortly after and a stay on the decision was approved by an appeals judge on Tuesday afternoon, leaving the mandate in effect. Another hearing on the matter is scheduled for Friday morning.

Despite a statement from the state Department of Education asking school districts to keep the mandates in place in anticipation of the appeal on Monday night, some schools across Long Island notified parents that masks were now optional. Parents and guardians received a robocall on Monday night in Riverhead saying the mask mandate remained in effect pending the appeal.   

Still, some students arrived at school unwilling to wear a mask. Faith Falisi, a junior at Riverhead High School and one of the few students in the demonstration, said she was sent home from school Tuesday morning after going to school without wearing her mask. “I was just going with the law that the Supreme Court ruled. And they sent me home and I’m not gonna go back until that changes,” she said.

Falisi said she gets yelled at constantly about wearing her mask under her nose by school security guards and staff members. 

“We are young and the COVID survival rate is just insane. This has been going on since 2020 and it needs to end. You can’t keep masking perfectly healthy kids. If you are afraid of COVID, you can stay home or if it makes you sleep better at night to wear a mask all day, then that’s what you do,” Falisi said.

A report by the New York State Department of Health examining COVID-19 hospitalizations of children from Nov. 28 to Jan. 8, showed that the rate of hospital admissions for COVID-19 in people ages 0-18 increased six-fold. A little under half of patients admitted for COVID-19 had comorbidities, while the other half were without pre-existing conditions. There have been 883 pediatric deaths of people with COVID-19 in the United States recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the pandemic, which remain the lowest out of any age group.

Monique Parsons, a parent of two students in the district, alleged that students have been kept in what was described as a day-long detention for not wearing their masks. Riverhead Police Chief David Hegemiller said Tuesday that there had been “two or three” reports filed with police Tuesday regarding the school district’s mask policy.

“They literally denied access to my education because I wouldn’t wear a mask at school,” Falisi said. “It has to end. We got to start putting our foot down.”

School District Superintendent Augustine Tornatore refused a request for a phone interview regarding the protest and the treatment of students who refused to mask. He instead wrote in an email that “Students who have refused to wear a mask are being provided their education and are being treated respectfully. No students joined the protesters, who I believe were non-residents.” 

Gov. Kathy Hochul imposed the mask mandate in schools in August, when she became governor after the resignation of former-Gov. Andrew Cuomo. State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett imposed another mandate on all indoor public spaces that do not require COVID-19 vaccination at Hochul’s direction on Dec. 10 in reaction to an increase in cases, hospitalizations and the appearance of the omicron variant in the state.

Masks can protect people from getting and spreading the COVID-19 virus, according to the CDC. The CDC recommends people over two years old wear multi-layered, well-fitting masks in indoor public places if they are not fully vaccinated and in an area with substantial or high transmission, or fully vaccinated and with weakened immune systems.

Tornatore acknowledged the mask mandate decision and subsequent appeal as a “rollercoaster situation” at the district’s Board of Education meeting Tuesday night. He said the mask mandate in the district’s reopening plan, which was passed in a 4-3 vote last summer, allows the district to make masks optional based on the infection rates and depending upon the legality of the mandate.

“We do hope at some point that we are able to move to masks being optional,” he said.

Twelve of 14 public comments at Tuesday night’s board meeting were against the mask mandate.

Parsons, who helped organize a protest of about 20 people against the mandate Tuesday afternoon in front of the district office, said today she was there to spread the same message.

“I believe that there’s about 40 to 50 students right now” isolated, she said. “They’re segregating them. They’re not educating them. And it’s unacceptable and unconstitutional.”

“People are going to restaurants, they’re going to indoor shows, they’re going to concerts, they’re going to a million other places without a mask on. But all of a sudden inside the school is supposedly not the safest place to be. That’s not a thing,” she said.

Hochul’s mask mandate is in place for all indoor public spaces that don’t have a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for entry.

Parsons said there is “serious scientific evidence” against the mandate and the children are being utilized “as political pawns.”

The protest also drew a few hecklers, including Riverhead High School seniors Clark Fischer and Cameron Popus, who loudly moaned from across the street to mock the protestors. 

“We think it’s a fake issue,” Fischer said. “The actual students in the school, we don’t care about the masks, we are completely apathetic.” 

Fischer said only a minority of students in the high school actually care about the issue of masks — and most just forget that they’re wearing them at all. He said that because of the surge in cases over the winter the mandate should continue, especially because minors can’t make their own decision to get vaccinated without parental consent.

“We’re counter-protesting, but in a way, we’re just making fun of the fact that they built their whole worldview on something that doesn’t exist. So we’re just having some fun at their expense,” Fischer said.

Protesters outside the high school Thursday afternoon. Photo: Alek Lewis

Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio attended the protest. She said the state needs to give control of the mask mandates to local school boards. She also said the state needs to set benchmarks that determine when mask mandates can be lifted.

“It’s got to be something so that the parents and the kids have something to look forward to,” Giglio said. “So that when the rates drop to a certain amount, like if it’s 0-3% you’re not wearing masks; 3-6% you’re wearing masks in public spaces, but you don’t have to wear it at your desk if you have social separation distance; and 6% to 9% then you mask all the time. 9%, maybe you go back to zooming. But the formula has to be there, just as it was in reopening the businesses.” 

When asked if she would support the mask mandate being removed right now, like the protestors are requesting, Giglio said: “I think it’s the parents’ constitutional right to fight for their children, and to speak and say what they want to say. And I support that 100% completely.” 

Shawn Farash, the founder of Long Island Loud Majority, said the school is treating the unmasked students “like inmates.” He said all school districts should “disobey the governor” and give students the choice whether to wear a mask. 

“If she fines these public schools, she will enrage every parent out there all over the place in New York,” Farash said. “and she will not be able to win this reelection bid in November.”

He was also concerned with the political implications of the governor’s power if the appellate court rules in Hochul’s favor. “Because if this stay is upheld tomorrow, this makes it completely legal and constitutional for the governor’s office in this state, no matter what party occupies that office, to issue regulations and treat the regulations as law,” he said. The executive branch is authorized to issue regulations, which have the same force and effect as law, but regulations must be made pursuant to a legislative grant of authority. The issue in the mask mandate lawsuit is whether the Public Health Law or some other legislation grants the executive branch authority to issue the regulations that were challenged.

Giglio and Farash referred specifically to the updated guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as proof that other than N95 respirators, “masks do not work.” The updated guidance does not say masks don’t work, but rather clarifies that some types of masks provide more protection to the wearer than others. 

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.

SHARE
Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]