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State health panel approves keeping school mask mandate in place

Middle and high school students return to class

Middle and high school students return to class on the first day of school at the Jericho school district on Aug. 26. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Mandatory masks should continue to be used in schools, health care facilities, jails, homeless shelters, buses and other places, a state health panel recommended Thursday morning.

Hours later, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that 80% of New Yorkers age 18 and older were fully vaccinated, even though COVID-19 indicators continued to shoot up on Long Island and statewide as the holiday season got underway after Halloween.

The state Department of Health’s Public Health and Health Planning Council approved renewing the emergency regulation on face coverings for COVID-19 prevention. State Department of Health officials said the renewed measure should be effective Nov. 24, the date the 90-day emergency mask rule was set to expire. It was unclear Thursday when the regulation would expire next.

The initial emergency regulation had been approved by the same panel in July and authorized by the state commissioner of health in August.

What to know

  • Masking should continue in schools, health care settings, adult care facilities regulated by the state health department, correctional facilities and detention centers, homeless shelters, public transportation conveyances and transportation hubs, a state health panel recommended Thursday.
  • The health panel also approved reauthorizing the emergency regulation that requires vaccination against COVID-19 for personnel of hospitals, nursing homes, diagnostic and treatment centers, hospices, home care service agencies and adult care facilities.
  • Some parents have objected to the school masking, saying it makes learning difficult for their children. Others support it, saying the face coverings help keep people safe and prevent spread of the coronavirus.
  • Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Thursday that 80% of New Yorkers age 18 and older are fully vaccinated, 

The issue of masks in schools has set off debate on both sides, with some people saying the face coverings interfere with children's education and make it hard for kids to breath, and others saying they prevent spread of the virus and potentially hospitalizations and deaths of children.

"Unmask our kids" signs have become common on some Long Island front lawns.

The panel on Thursday "unanimously approved masking in health care settings, adult care facilities regulated by the department, school settings, correctional facilities and detention centers, homeless shelters, public transportation conveyances and transportation hubs."

The council also approved reauthorizing the emergency regulation requiring that personnel of hospitals, nursing homes, diagnostic and treatment centers, hospices, home care service agencies and adult care facilities be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The mandate "has worked and has increased the percentage of health care workers who are vaccinated against COVID-19," health officials said at the meeting.

Health officials noted that COVID-19 cases statewide have risen tenfold since late June, partly due to the delta variant.

Parents for, against masking

Some parents say the masks make learning and socialization difficult for their children and is affecting them emotionally. Others support the masks, saying they are a temporary necessity during a public health crisis.

Noret Bazemore, the mother of a sixth- and a seventh-grader in the Freeport public schools, said continuing the mask mandate was a "great idea."

"I think it needs to continue especially as long as we’re still dealing with this virus, regardless of vaccination status or not," she said. "It’s necessary. We need to be protected. We especially need to protect our children and the administrators."

She added: "The masks absolutely offer some protection."

Others disagreed.

Michael Murphy, a parent of elementary school age children in St. James, said, "I’m all for parents’ choice," allowing them to decide if their kids should wear a mask in school or not.

"The more data that comes out the more it looks like these kids’ cases are still low, they’re not getting sick, hospitalizations are low," he said. "You take them off and if the cases go higher, maybe you put them back on."

He added: "I hope we can get to a place where it’s parents’ choice and we can end this tyranny."

Kevin Smith, a Lindenhurst resident who belongs to the Long Island-based citizens group Loud Majority, agreed.

"I would be interested to see what the science is behind that, considering there is none," he said, referring to the mask mandate.

"It should be left up to the individual districts," he said.

Dr. Adam Berman, associate chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, says continuing the mandate is a good idea "until we see how schools do as children continue to get the vaccine. They’re getting it very quickly, which is wonderful. But it’s going to be some time before we can say that it’s really cutting down on transmissions."

In response to parents who say masks interfere with their children’s education, Berman said, "I know that it is affecting children and that it is difficult but I think that this isn’t going to be forever. And so we need to continue to do it now while we make sure that we are as safe as we can be."

The health panel also renewed approval of an emergency regulation, initially approved by the council on Sept. 2, that schools continue to submit daily reports of COVID-19 testing and permits the state commissioner to issue determinations to require routine testing in certain settings.

Numbers up on Long Island

COVID-19 indicators continued to jump on Long Island, where the seven-day average for positivity in testing for the virus rose over the past three days from 3.48% to 3.59% to 3.74% Wednesday. The average was close to 2% a few weeks ago.

Statewide, the average is also on the rise, and hit 3.58%.

Long Island registered 970 new cases — 418 in Nassau and 552 in Suffolk — in test results from Wednesday. New York City tallied 1,454 new cases.

Across the state, 30 people died Wednesday of causes linked to the virus, including two in Nassau and four in Suffolk.

Despite those grim statistics about the virus, Hochul said the 80% vaccination rate was an important achievement.

"I'm proud that we've hit a new milestone of 80 percent of New Yorkers over 18 years old fully vaccinated," she said in a statement.

"Yet at the same time, the colder weather means more people will be congregating indoors, potentially increasing the risk of transmission of COVID-19. So my message as we head into the holiday season is simple: If you feel at risk and want to protect your friends, family and loved ones, get vaccinated or get your booster — and make sure to wear a mask in indoor settings."

NYC workers vax rate rises

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that another mandate — for city workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — was working, as the number of employees inoculated continued to rise.

He also called on officials throughout the country to issue a similar mandate, saying it will help to end the pandemic.

A total of 94% of city employees have now received the shots, he said in a news briefing. Since an Oct. 20 deadline to get vaccinated, the number of NYPD workers inoculated has risen from 70% to 87%, de Blasio said.

The figures also have increased from 58% to 88% in the FDNY, from 61% to 92% among EMS workers, and from 62% to 87% among sanitation workers.

"Mandates work," de Blasio declared. "They get people vaccinated. They keep everyone healthy."

DeBlasio faced fierce opposition to the vaccine mandate from some city workers, including police and firefighters. But in the end, the mayor said, the mandates got most of the workers vaccinated.

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