Chanting "no more masks" and "free our children," more than 100 Long Island parents, activists and lawmakers rallied Wednesday in Hauppauge, urging Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to lift a mandate requiring face coverings in classrooms.
The mask mandate ended in April across a range of categories but remains in place at schools, on public transportation, hospitals, nursing homes and correctional facilities.
Outside Suffolk County's H. Lee Dennison Building, demonstrators — sometimes jovial, other times cantankerous — all agreed: The final decisions over whether or not students wear masks in class — even if they're unvaccinated — are best made made by them and their families.
"Children and parents should have a choice whether they're comfortable with their kids wearing or not wearing a mask," said Alisha Stein, of Smithtown, whose children are in the fourth, sixth and tenth grades.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a GOP candidate for governor and the rally organizer, said masks have contributed to the developmental, emotional and physical harm of students during the pandemic.
With the weather warming and few classrooms boasting air conditioning, Zeldin argued that mask mandates should end immediately and not return when classes resume in the fall.
"We are all here for our kids," Zeldin said. "Right now … in K through 12, we have our sons and daughters, our grandkids, members of our families and our community, and they haven't seen what normal looks like in a very long time. We believe in not just following the science but also following common sense."
Questioned about Zeldin's rally during his daily press briefing Wednesday, Cuomo said "we follow the CDC guidance and it's very rare that we differ with the CDC. I have raised before that the mask mandate outside for students seems a little extreme to me and we're talking to the CDC about it."
As COVID-19 infection rates have declined across the state, largely due to a growing percentage of the population getting vaccinated, Cuomo last month lifted mask mandates for indoor businesses, houses of worship and restaurants.
Cuomo also reversed course last month, allowing unvaccinated children, ages 2 to 5, to go maskless at day care facilities and summer camps. But the mandate was kept in place at schools, on public transportation, and in hospitals, nursing homes and correctional facilities.
More than 65% of New Yorkers 18 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine. But just 46% of New Yorkers ages 16 to 25 — and less than 22% of youngsters 12 to 15 — have gotten their first dose, according to state health department data. Students under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine.
Barbara Abboud, of Moms for Liberty, a Facebook group, held back tears as she talked about her children "suffering" because of the loss of "basic freedoms."
"Our parental rights do not end at the classroom door," she said.
Protesters carried signs with messages like "My Child Doesn't Need a Face Diaper" and "We Will Not Comply." Others carried banners mocking Cuomo while one man wore an American flag suit and a "Make America Great Again" hat.
Dana Helfrich, with the group Long Island Loud Majority, said the temperature in her three children's classrooms is 80 degrees.
"I think this is child abuse," she said. "They're coming home from school purple, hot and can't breathe."
Shayna Shapiro, a fourth grader from Port Jefferson, agreed. She called mask wearing "torture. I can't breathe. … We are going to be running around on Field Day in scorching heat wearing a mask. It's horrible."