NEW YORK: Facing a cold-weather surge in COVID-19 infections, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Friday that masks will be required in all indoor public places unless the businesses or venues implement a vaccine requirement.
Hochul said the decision to reinstitute a mask mandate was based on a rising number of cases and hospitalizations, which has been especially pronounced in parts of upstate New York.
“We’re entering a time of uncertainty and we could either plateau here or our cases could get out of control,” Hochul warned at a public appearance in New York City.
New York joins several states with similar indoor mask mandates, including Washington, Oregon, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada and Hawaii.
Mask mandates have become a hot-button issue. For weeks, Hochul has said local governments will decide whether to reimpose COVID-19 protocols. She’s expressed caution about whether resistant communities would follow stricter rules.
Hochul’s announcement Friday was cheered by some fellow Democrats and a union representing retail and grocery workers, even as Republicans called it an overreach and an unnecessary burden on businesses.
Violators could face civil and criminal penalties, including a maximum fine of $1,000. While Hochul said local health departments will be in charge of enforcing the requirements, Republican Rockland County Executive Ed Day said the governor’s staff was unable to provide detailed information about the new requirement.
Niagara County Legislature Chair Becky Wydysh, a Republican, said local officials don’t believe a mandate is the best use of resources. The county will take an “educate to cooperate approach” to enforcement, Wydysh said in a statement.
News of the mandate was welcome at the Lake Placid Christmas Company, a shop on Main Street in the tourist-friendly Adirondack village.
“Our employees all wear masks, but we stopped requiring all of our customers to wear masks because it was too hard to enforce,” said manager Scott Delahant. “Quite frankly, I got sick of arguing with people.”
He said many shoppers browse barefaced, despite a sign on the door encouraging mask wearing and a basket of free disposable masks.
Hochul announced the mask mandate at a social service agency in Manhattan, where most people already wear masks. New York City requires vaccinations for indoor restaurant dining, entertainment and gyms, and those vaccine-requiring venues will be unaffected by the new rule.
The state recorded more than 68,000 positive tests for the virus in the seven-day period that ended Wednesday. That’s the most in any seven-day stretch since the start of February, and rates are rising in nearly all counties.
“We are heading upward in a direction that I no longer find sustainable,” Hochul said.
Nearly 3,500 people are hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York — nearly double from 1,794 on Nov. 7.
The surge is especially pronounced in some areas of upstate New York, which has accounted for nearly three-fourths of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in hospitals since August. Several upstate counties have recently enacted mask mandates, including Erie County, which includes Buffalo.
In Sullivan County in the mid-Hudson Valley, public health director Nancy McGraw said people have become complacent about the virus and she supports the mask mandate. She said vaccination rates are disappointingly low in remote areas including Woodbourne, where only 36% of roughly 3,000 residents are fully vaccinated.
“We have very limited resources for enforcement and people need to do the right thing,” McGraw said. “Public responsibility is key here.”
New York has the seventh highest rate of fully vaccinated residents: 70.1% as of federal data updated Friday. But fewer than 60% of residents are fully vaccinated in more than 500 zip codes throughout New York, according to data for about 1,300 zip codes provided by the state health agency.
Thirty-two upstate hospitals in Niagara and elsewhere had to limit performing nonessential elective surgeries starting Thursday because of capacity issues.
One of the state’s worst hit hospitals, Glen Falls Hospital in Warren County, said 50 out of 165 patients had COVID-19 as of Wednesday. That’s the most infected patients the hospital’s ever reported, according to state data.
“We remain very busy across all units in the hospital,” hospital spokesperson F. Raymond Agnew said. He said 70% of COVID-19 admissions are unvaccinated people.