Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday she is not a "pushover" and will stand up to Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman’s attempt to disobey her mandate that masks must be worn indoors in schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I don’t think anyone could ever accuse me of being a pushover. They know me, and those who underestimate me do so at their own peril, including the county executive of Nassau County," Hochul said at a news conference in response to a question from Newsday.
Hochul and her acting health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, also said Friday that the state is seeing a few hopeful signs the omicron surge may be starting to plateau, as the governor issued orders on testing before entering nursing homes and booster shots for health care workers.
What to know
Gov. Kathy Hochul said Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman will fail in his attempt to disobey her mandate that masks must be worn indoors in schools.
The state is seeing a few hopeful signs the omicron surge may be starting to reach a plateau, she said.
The number of children hospitalized this week with COVID-19 has jumped to 570, compared to 150 Christmas week, while the statewide daily death toll from the virus rose to 155.
Blakeman, Nassau’s newly installed executive, got Hochul's attention after he issued an executive order on Thursday saying local school districts can opt not to obey the state mandate on masks in schools. He argued the county has "home rule authority" of preventing the state from imposing unreasonable restrictions on parents without a compelling reason.
"Our county is larger than nine states, and we don’t need people in Albany telling us what we should be doing here in Nassau," said Blakeman, adding that county police would not enforce state masking mandates.
Hochul responded on Friday: "I have the law of the state of New York behind me, and I will always exercise my authority and obligation to protect the health of the people of this state."
She predicted Blakeman will fail. "That law stands" and "supersedes anything a jurisdiction such as a county, which is a creature of the state," approves, Hochul said. "They have to follow state law."
Hochul also noted that school districts are regulated by the state Education Department, which "came out very strongly and said that they want this mandate to stand."
She warned that any district that disobeys the mandate will face "consequences," including fines and a "cessation of funding, which I don’t think the school districts will want to deal with."
Blakeman on Friday said: "We must return personal decision-making to families, and normalcy to students [many of whom face depression, anxiety and other mental health issues from these restrictions].
Daily Positivity Rate
Nassau: 26% Suffolk: 25.7% Statewide: 21.77%
7-day Positivity Rate
Nassau: 26% Suffolk: 27.2% Statewide: 22.36%
Source: New York State Department of Health
"Everyone has lived under Gov. Hochul’s renewed mask mandate for nearly a month now [and just about a year and a half for children], yet we have the highest caseloads ever," he said.
Infectious disease experts say caseloads are breaking records largely because of the highly contagious omicron variant, and that masks help reduce spread.
Ten state Democratic legislators on Friday called on Blakeman, a Republican, to rescind what they called his "irresponsible and clearly unlawful executive order," and said they believe Nassau school districts will ignore it.
"At this point in the pandemic, when pediatric hospitalizations are spiking at dangerous levels, it would be the height of irresponsibility to ignore Governor Hochul's vital efforts to protect public health," they said in a statement.
Blakeman's order argues, without medical evidence, that masking children "may lead to negative health and societal ramifications" and that forcing children to wear facial coverings could inhibit breathing and lead to other long-term medical problems.
Hochul, a Democrat, signed the order in August requiring everyone in schools to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. The order prompted a host of lawsuits that ultimately were rejected by the courts.
The Long Beach school district on Friday said it is "not bound" by Blakeman’s order, and will continue to abide by the state’s mandate.
Omicron variant about to plateau?
Meanwhile, Hochul said Friday that visitors to nursing homes must show a negative COVID-19 test 24 hours or less before visiting and wear quality, surgical-like masks, since the number of cases there is rising.
She also ordered all health care workers to get COVID-19 boosters. New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, the largest health care system in the state, said Friday it will comply and that more than 50% of its eligible employees already have done so.
Visitors to nursing homes can either do an at-home test and bring the results with them — which the state prefers — or get tested at the facility before they walk in, Hochul said.
The state will provide enough tests to the nursing homes, she said.
"The last thing we want to do is create a situation where visitors are coming in and now getting the people that they love or their neighbors in the next room sick from the pandemic," she said. "And we are starting to see an increase in cases in our nursing homes."
COVID-19 there "will spread like wildfire," she added. "It is starting to in some places."
Hochul and Bassett said the omicron variant surge may be starting to plateau.
"There is a slight peaking. It’s not the straight up and down like an arrow it was before," Hochul said of the daily cases numbers.
"I want to be cautiously optimistic about what that means, but we’re not going to make any pronouncements other than that is a better trend line than we had been seeing up until now," she added.
The daily statewide death toll from the virus jumped to 155, the highest level in nearly a year, Hochul said. The total was 130 the day before, and 103 on Sunday. The daily deaths Thursday included 15 in Nassau and 13 in Suffolk.
The seven-day average for positivity on Long Island dropped slightly on Thursday for the first time in weeks after skyrocketing recently. It fell to 26.58%, from 26.76% the day before.
New York State registered 82,094 new cases on Thursday, Hochul said, a high number, but still slightly below the record set on New Year's Eve. The new cases included 6,110 in Nassau and 5,394 in Suffolk, also below recently set records.
Bassett said omicron cases in other countries have "gone up quickly and come down."
"We need a couple more days to be able to tell that we’ve peaked. Of course, that is what everyone is hoping for," she said. "I think that we can expect a difficult January, but that things should be much better by February."
Bassett said the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state has jumped from 150 to 571 since Dec. 25, when the state first sent an alert about the problem.
The vast majority of those children are not vaccinated against the virus, she said, urging parents to get the shots for their children.
The governor also asked people to stop going to emergency rooms for COVID-19 tests because they are getting overwhelmed. She said nearly one in five people who went to ERs on Thursday were there for the tests.
Sign up to get text alerts about COVID-19 and other topics at newsday.com/text.