Middle and high school students in the Jericho school district...

Middle and high school students in the Jericho school district last August. The CDC said counties with relatively low COVID-19 levels no longer need to require students and staff to don the face coverings. The decision remains in the governor's hands. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

The CDC on Friday gave Long Island the green light to have its mask mandate in schools dropped, saying counties with relatively low COVID-19 levels no longer need to require students and staff to don the face coverings.

The agency’s recommendations are not binding but could give Gov. Kathy Hochul impetus to drop the mandate as early as next week.


The mask mandate for schools can be dropped on Long Island, under new, nonbinding CDC guidelines released Friday.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has said she expects to decide to end or extend the statewide mandate next week.

The CDC released a map in which Long Island was literally colored green — the go-ahead sign for dropping the school mask mandate. Other counties in New York State were green, yellow or orange — with orange indicating the highest COVID-19 levels.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was reconfiguring the criteria it uses to assess regions, and that under the new guidelines, more than 70% of Americans live in areas including Long Island where they can now safely take a break from wearing masks in most public situations, as long as they are healthy.

It was a recognition that the country is entering a new, potentially less dangerous phase of the pandemic as it seeks to return to normalcy two years after the virus first emerged here, upending daily life.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stressed the new approach could be dialed up or down if the unpredictable virus should morph again.

"None of us knows what the future may hold for us and for this virus," Walensky said in a news briefing. "We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing, when levels are low, and then have the ability to reach for them again, should things get worse in the future."

The CDC released a map in which Long Island was literally colored green — the go-ahead sign for dropping the school mask mandate.

The agency offered the color-coded map — with counties designated as orange, yellow or green — to help guide local officials and residents.

In green counties, local officials can drop any indoor masking rules. Yellow means people at high risk for severe disease should be cautious. Orange designates places where the CDC suggests masking should be universal.

Long Island’s current seven-day average positivity level is 1.93%, according to results released Friday, after hitting a record nearly 27% during the omicron surge.

The CDC’s previous recommendation, dating to last July, was for universal masking in schools no matter the level of COVID-19.

Students leave school in Manhattan on Dec. 21.

Students leave school in Manhattan on Dec. 21. Credit: AP/AP

New York City also is a green zone in the new map, as are some counties north of the city. But parts of western New York and upstate are yellow or orange.

New York State has already dropped its mandate for masking or proof of vaccination for indoor public places including restaurants, stores, gyms and theaters. But it still has in place a hotly debated mandate for masks in schools.

Hochul said Friday she was evaluating the new CDC guidance. Earlier this month, she said she will likely decide to extend or end the school mask mandate late next week after students return from winter break on Monday.

The CDC said that even if the mask mandate were dropped, students and staff can still have the option to wear a mask if they want.

The new CDC recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations. The agency also said people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive shouldn’t stop wearing masks.

Medical experts, others react

The school mask mandate has provoked fierce debate and even lawsuits on Long Island, with some parents packing board of education meetings, protesting in the streets, and posting signs on their front lawns saying they want the masks dropped.

But some polls suggest many parents want the masks to stay on a bit longer.

Medical experts on Long Island said the CDC’s new guidelines generally make sense, though they cautioned to move slowly on schools because many children — especially in the 5- to 11-year-old age group — remain unvaccinated.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, said the CDC is likely making the moves because many people probably now have immunity to COVID-19 since they were infected with the highly contagious omicron variant.

In addition, a sizable portion of the population is now vaccinated, she said.

But she warned that officials may want to move a little more slowly regarding schools, because most elementary school students are not vaccinated.

"I appreciate what they are doing and why they are doing it" by recommending Americans in many areas can drop the masks, she said. "But I want to say I reserve a note of caution to families. … The need for vaccinations and boosters is still there. While we may have beat back this current variant, I always worry about the next variant."

Some parents who want the masks removed in schools hailed the CDC guidelines and called on Hochul to take action.

"The governor should come out tomorrow and say masks can come off our children," said Matthew Sether, a Huntington resident. "Every day that goes by is another day wasted and the mandates need to end now, as is happening all over this country and other countries."

"There is a documented mental health crisis; does the governor not think these masks are part of that?" he added.

Chad LaVeglia, an attorney who filed a lawsuit on behalf of some Long Island parents seeking to have the school mask mandate dropped, said: "Kathy Hochul's departure from CDC guidance demonstrates that she is motivated by politics, not keeping children safe. She has harmed thousands of innocent children to further her political agenda."

Jericho students last August.

Jericho students last August. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Dr. David Battinelli, physician in chief at Northwell Health, said he generally agreed with the CDC's move but said it might be a good idea for people on Long Island to wear the masks a bit longer.

"Do I think you should wear a mask for a little longer? Yeah, I do," he added. "But am I going to mandate it? I guess not," though "I still think we have a little bit of a tail" to the surge on Long Island.

Hospitals in focus

Long Island registered 281 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, while statewide 31 people including two each in Nassau and Suffolk died of causes linked to the virus.

The CDC’s new guidelines have less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals. The new system greatly changes the look of the CDC's risk map, with three of every four Americans living in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals.

The agency is still advising that people, including schoolchildren, wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That covers about 28% of Americans.

"Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask," Walensky said. "We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease. ... Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out the volume of disease in their community and make that decision."

Since July, CDC’s transmission-prevention guidance to communities has focused on two measures: the rate of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results over the previous week.

Based on those measures, this week, more than 3,000 of the nation’s more than 3,200 counties — greater than 95% — were listed as having substantial or high transmission.

That guidance has increasingly been ignored, however, with states, cities, counties and school districts across the U.S. announcing plans to drop mask mandates amid declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Nachman and other experts warned that another variant is possible, and the mask may have to come back on at some point. But giving people a break now makes sense, Nachman and Battinelli said.

Battinelli said that if another wave and variant come, people should put the masks back on — kind of like using an umbrella when it is raining. "When it stops raining you take the umbrella down," he said.

Earlier Friday, New York City Schools Chancellor David C. Banks said that beginning Monday, masks and face coverings will be optional for students, staff and visitors on outdoor school grounds, though masks will still be required indoors.

With John Valenti and AP

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