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Gov. Kathy Hochul announced today New York State’s mask mandate will end tomorrow for most indoor public spaces, citing a declining number of cases in the state after a record-setting winter surge of the virus.

The decision follows similar announcements this week from several other states ending mask mandates that were imposed during the winter surge.

New York’s mandate, which expires tomorrow, required that businesses either impose a mask mandate or require COVID-19 vaccination to enter. Hochul said counties, cities and businesses can still choose to require masks. 

Although the mandate is being lifted for most indoors spaces, masks will still be required around the state in certain locations, including correctional facilities, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, public transit, airports and planes, in state-regulated healthcare settings, adult care facilities and nursing homes. 

A separate mask mandate will continue in schools, where masks have been required since the beginning of the pandemic. Hochul announced that the school safety protocols, including the mask mandates, will be evaluated after midwinter breaks and will be based on the latest metrics. The state will send students home with COVID-19 rapid tests both before and after the break, and is asking parents to report any positive cases to their local school districts to help inform local decisions on mask requirements.

Hochul said it is a “very strong possibility” that the safety protocols in schools will be lifted if the case rates continue to remain at their current level. School-age children remain one of the lowest age groups for COVID-19 death and hospitalizations, although COVID-19 hospitalizations in New York did increase fastest among children compared to other age groups during a period in December, according to a state report.

Hochul imposed the mandate on indoor public spaces in December in anticipation of a winter surge in cases and the breakout of the highly contagious omicron variant in the state. Those fears of a winter surge ended up being justified, with the state reaching record high numbers of positive cases over the past few months. Hochul said she stood by her decision to impose the mandate, as it allowed businesses to stay open during the surge.

A Nassau County judge ruled against the mandate in all public buildings, including schools, in a case brought on behalf of a parent in the county, finding that State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett lacked the legal authority to impose the mandates. The rule was granted a stay pending an appeal by the state.

“We are continuing to proceed in court because we will continue to maintain and demonstrate in a court of law that New York State and its health department has the power to protect the citizens of this state,” Hochul said.

Hochul said that although mandates are starting to be lifted, the fight against COVID-19 isn’t over. Hochul said she would continue the state’s campaign to increase vaccination and booster rates, especially in eligible children. 

The state will also continue other measures to combat the pandemic, including investing more money into healthcare, and to require the use of high-quality masks and proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 24 hours of visiting nursing homes, Hochul said.

School mask mandates have been a contentious issue in districts around the state and on Long Island, leading to local protests outside Riverhead High School and regular criticism from parents during Board of Education meetings.

The Riverhead Central School District’s reopening plan, adopted last summer, requires masks in all school buildings. Board of Education Trustee Christopher Dorr, a regular critic of mask mandates, motioned to strike the mask mandate from the plan during last night’s meeting, so the mandate would end if the state decides to lift the school mandate next month.

The board voted 3-2 in favor of Dorr’s motion, but it failed to pass without a board majority of four votes. Two trustees, Therese Zuhoski and President Laurie Downs, were absent from the meeting and therefore did not vote.

Dorr, Trustee Virginia Healy and Trustee Brian Connelly voted in favor of the change, while Board Vice President Matthew Wallace and Trustee Colin Palmer dissented.

“I’m in agreement that it would be time to have masks optional, because I think by the time that [the governor] makes that decision the rates will be low enough,” Healy said.

Palmer said he did not feel comfortable with the change because the board would not know what the local COVID-19 infection rates stand and that he supports the board reconvening in a special meeting to make the decision. Wallace agreed.

Dorr later read a comment from Zuhoski in her absence that said she supported the mask mandate being lifted.

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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]