New Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman has become the mouthpiece for those against mask and vaccine mandates. Blakeman says he is speaking up for his residents who want his help in ending the mandates. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca and Howard Schnapp/Alejandra Villa Loarca and Howard Schnapp

For one day, Jan. 25, some Long Island school districts discarded the state's indoor mask mandate after a Nassau judge declared the state order invalid.

The decision, though stayed later by an appeals court, prompted confusion among parents, students, teachers and administrators.

That morning, however, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman — who has inserted himself squarely into the statewide and national debate over mask and vaccination mandates — spent time enjoying celebratory social media posts from Nassau parents who opposed mask requirements.

"I think it was a joyful day," Blakeman, a Republican who took office Jan. 1, told Newsday last week.

"Friends of mine were sending me texts and emails and YouTubes of their kids dancing that morning, when they found out they didn't have to wear their masks in school — kids smiling in school, showing off their face," Blakeman recalled.

What to know

  • Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman has become a high-profile backer of the GOP-driven campaign against COVID-19 mandates.
  • He's clung to his stance despite criticism from top Democrats and numerous health experts who say masks are effective in helping stem the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Political experts said Blakeman is playing to his base, while Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said the executive "didn't waste any time to let it be known where he stood on top issues."

In just five weeks in office, Blakeman, who defeated Democratic County Executive Laura Curran in November, has become a high-profile backer of the GOP-driven campaign against COVID-19 mandates.

He's clung to his stance despite criticism from top Democrats such as Gov. Kathy Hochul and numerous health experts who say masks are effective in helping stem the spread of the coronavirus, particularly among the unvaccinated.

Blakeman drew cheers at an anti-mask "Back the Bruce" rally on Jan. 23 in Mineola.

At a recent news conference of Blakeman's, mandate opponents, some wearing "Make America Great Again" caps, displayed signs with slogans such as, "Unmask our Children."

"You are definitely at peril if you're getting a mom mad at you. And I think there are a lot of mad moms out there," Blakeman told Newsday.

"For any elected official who's not taking notice, I would say you should rethink your position and understand that this is a visceral issue with parents," he said.

Nick Langworthy, New York State Republican chairman, said Blakeman's strength derives from his position as a "Republican County Executive for a county as big as Nassau."

Langworthy continued: "Right off the bat, day one, he's one of the leading Republicans in the State of New York. And with that, he has a bully pulpit, and he has used that right away."

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a GOP candidate for governor, told Newsday colleagues in Congress have been asking him about, "this new County Executive from Nassau County."

Zeldin said Blakeman, "didn't waste any time to let it be known where he stood on top issues. There are too many people who get elected who just seem to waste a whole lot of time trying to be all things to all people and never really showing strength in bold leadership at all."

Democrats and many health experts say Blakeman, Zeldin and other Republicans who vocally oppose mandates are stoking political division, ignoring science and putting inappropriate pressure on school officials when COVID-19 cases still are numerous.

The medical experts say mask-wearing in schools is key to helping prevent infection among the unvaccinated; the immunocompromised, particularly children who are too young to qualify for vaccination; and staff with young children at home who don't yet qualify.

Jay Jacobs, the Nassau and state Democratic chairman, said Blakeman "is playing to the far-right Republican base. He believes that’s how he got elected, and he sees that as an opportunity to advance himself either to a higher elective office, or just to greater prominence within the Republican Party."

Top GOP officials in other states, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Gov. Glenn Youngkin, of Virginia, also are attacking school mask mandates.

But Jacobs and some political experts say Blakeman is hewing to a risky strategy in Nassau, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 100,000.

"What he’s doing is he’s playing on people’s frustrations and upset with a virus that’s lasted too long, and he’s utilizing that to gain temporary personal popularity," Jacobs said of Blakeman.

"I think that only is good in the short term," Jacobs told Newsday.

Blakeman, who defeated Curran by 2,146 votes, says he's not following a national political playbook, but instead is fulfilling a campaign promise to use executive orders to exempt Nassau from mask mandates.

On his sixth day in office, Blakeman signed an executive order directing Nassau school districts to decide for themselves whether to require masks in school buildings.

Hochul and State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa warned Blakeman that districts could lose state funding for disobeying the indoor mask mandate.

"I have the law of the state of New York behind me," Hochul said in January.

Hochul's schools mandate expires Feb. 21. A lawsuit filed by Long Island parents over her mask mandate still is in court.

"Mask regulations keep our schools and businesses safe and open, protect vulnerable New Yorkers, and are critical tools as we work to get through this winter surge," Hochul said recently.

Blakeman has refused to back down, and conservatives nationwide have taken notice.

He's joined the "Monday Meeting" in Manhattan, a gathering of influential conservative Republicans.

Blakeman also has appeared on prime-time Fox News shows including "Tucker Carlson Tonight" and Laura Ingraham's "The Ingraham Angle."

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the elections newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told Newsday that Blakeman's focus on mask restrictions is "pretty standard fare for Republicans" in the United States.

"A lot of Republicans feel like they can outflank Democrats on COVID restrictions at this point," Kondik said. "The risk is whether people look back on it and feel like what Blakeman did ended up being a public health problem."

Meena Bose, a political-science professor and executive dean of the Public Policy and Public Service program at Hofstra University, said Blakeman, "is certainly playing to his political base. There’s two years of the pandemic taking over life in the United States and much of the world. People are impatient and frustrated, and he is clearly tapping into that impatience."

Blakeman, like Youngkin and DeSantis and other conservatives across the country, has focused on school issues, which have become a flashpoint on Long Island and nationwide.

Last week, a Tennessee school board banned the teaching of "Maus," a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth grade curriculum, citing the book's use of inappropriate curse words and depiction of nudity.

In some districts on Long Island, school board meetings have become contentious, with parents attacking board members, administrators and each other over issues such as COVID-19 restrictions and teaching about racial divisions.

"What we’re seeing here with this frustration, all frustration with the state of American politics and society at this time, is that all politics is local," Bose told Newsday.

"We're seeing … what should be, I think, some kind of extended discussions about … education kind of being reduced to talking points," Bose said.

Zeldin lauded Blakeman's focus on parents who are becoming more involved in how public schools are run.

"There are people who are opposing that position and saying, 'Well, if the parent wants to be that involved in their kid's education, then they should home-school their kid,' and they think that that's a clever response," Zeldin told Newsday.

"But they're actually just really [angering] that parent who might work. They want their kids to be surrounded by other kids, for all those benefits," Zeldin said.

"Their kids' education transcends party loyalty, always," he said.

Nicole Kitatani, of Merrick, a parent of a middle- and high school-aged children, said she is a registered Democrat but voted in November for Blakeman.

Kitatani, 49, said she had supported Curran in 2017, and wasn't following the 2021 race too closely.

But she said some of Blakeman's remarks about parental choice struck a chord.

"There is this sort of line that a lot of politicians aren't willing to cross, and push at what's right, and whatever he said made me think he could help us," Kitatani said in an interview.

She said Blakeman supports "choice" in a way Democrats have in the past.

"I respect and will stand up for the right to love who you love, marry who you marry, and the choice for our bodies, and this is no different," Kitatani said.

"The choice to wear a mask, not wear a mask, vaccinate not vaccinate, those are very personal choices," Kitatani said.

Bill Ferro, a former Jericho school board president who retired in 2021, said Blakeman has put school districts in a difficult spot.

"If you start leaving it up to districts, or leaving it up to individuals, or families, where half the kids are masked, and half aren't, it's just not going to work," Ferro told Newsday.

"And I don't think Mr. Blakeman really thought it out to the extent necessary," Ferro said.

Blakeman defends his stance against mandates.

"The physicians and scientists that I talked with and consulted with told me that the omicron variant was nothing more than a bad cold, that people would not be hospitalized in large numbers, that there wouldn't be a large number of deaths attributed to it. And they were right," Blakeman told Newsday.

"The hospitals are not full. The ICU units are not full. So I feel personally that I was the one that was following the science and not our elected officials," he said.

Experts say COVID-19 continues to cause deaths, with the number depending on the share of the population that is vaccinated.

Medical professionals say the omicron variant appears less virulent than prior viral strains to individuals who've been immunized and received booster shots.

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