Patrons at Gallo Columbian Restaurant in Patchogue in January. State...

Patrons at Gallo Columbian Restaurant in Patchogue in January. State officials recommended people go back to wearing masks in indoor public places including schools and restaurants in “high transmission” areas such as Long Island. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

State officials on Friday recommended people go back to wearing masks in indoor public places including schools and restaurants in “high transmission” areas such as Long Island, but stopped short of making it mandatory as some medical experts urged.

The state guidance came a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention elevated Long Island to its most high-risk level amid increasing cases of COVID-19 fueled by omicron subvariants.

“We recommend that all New Yorkers in high-risk COVID-19 counties and all New Yorkers at risk of severe disease wear a mask in public indoor places, regardless of vaccination status,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said in a statement.

Before the state issued the guidance, some health experts went further, saying officials should again make masks mandatory in schools.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • State officials recommended people go back to wearing masks in indoor public places including schools and restaurants in “high transmission” areas such as Long Island, but they didn't make it mandatory.
  • The guidance came a day after the CDC elevated Long Island to its most high-risk level amid increasing cases of COVID-19 fueled by omicron subvariants.
  • Before the state issued the guidance, some health experts went further, saying officials should again make masks mandatory in schools.

“Since growth of cases in schools has been very fast since masks were removed, I would bring back masks in schools immediately,” said Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University. “It is now clear that kids are getting COVID from teachers and kids while at school — but schools are meant to keep kids safe.”

He added that infected children and teachers then bring COVID-19 home, giving it to siblings, parents and grandparents. Students and teachers who are infected must stay home and quarantine for at least five days, thus missing in-person class.

In February, Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted a mandate requiring a mask or proof of vaccination to enter certain indoor public places. In early March, she lifted the mandate for face coverings in schools.

Some school leaders said they would consider bringing back mandatory masks, while others said they would not.

Medical experts also said the current official count of new cases on Long Island — now hitting about 2,000 a day — is a vast undercount, with the real figure at least 10 times that, or 20,000 or more.

With infected people remaining contagious for five or six days, easily 100,000 people a day on Long Island could be infecting others, said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health.

Long Island had 2,025 new confirmed cases on Thursday, according to state data, though experts said the actual number is far higher because most people are doing home tests now that are not reported to officials.

Nassau County had an 11.1% seven-day average for positivity, while Suffolk’s was 9.9%. That’s compared to about 1% for Long Island a year ago, though it hit about 27% in January at the height of the omicron surge.

The numbers are jumping because of the highly contagious omicron subvariants, the elimination of masking and other mandates, and the slowdown of vaccination rates, experts said.

Schools mixed on return to masks

Farber also said schools should seriously consider mandating masks again.

“From a public health point of view, I think it would be a good idea,” he said. “I have to weigh that against the remarkable resistance of the public to this, and whether it will really be enforceable and whether it can work.”

The Jericho school district will consider mandatory masking if the rates continue to climb, although most students and staff continue to wear masks voluntarily, said Superintendent Hank Grishman.

“Over the last several weeks we have seen an increase in cases both from students and from staff,” he said. “In the past, masks have proven to be an effective tool in keeping infection rates down, and if infection rates continue to climb, maybe there’s some wisdom in looking at either recommending or requiring masks in the future.”

The Middle Country school district does not currently plan to mandate masks, said Superintendent Roberta Gerold.

“We’re not considering it at the moment because it’s getting warmer, we have a lot of outside activities, windows are open,” and the district’s ventilation systems are top-level, she said. “You never know, it could change.”

“If this were January I would probably be thinking differently,” she added.

Case numbers have gone up, she said, but remain relatively low. The district had 10 cases on Wednesday, and a recent high of 35 last week — out of 9,300 students and about 1,200 staff.

Some students and staff are still wearing masks, but it’s under 20%, she said.

Masks mandatory in fewer places

Masks are now mandatory in only a handful of locations across the state, including hospitals, nursing homes, state-run public transportation hubs and local airports. The CDC’s recommendation to bring back mandatory masking in all indoor public locations regardless of vaccination status is not enforceable. That must be approved by the governor or local governments.

Masks are now mandatory in only a handful of locations...

Masks are now mandatory in only a handful of locations across the state. Above, a sign at a business along Main Street in Huntington in Sepember 2020. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said Friday he will not mandate masks in schools, though if a more severe variant spreads here, he would not rule it out.

Blakeman said most people infected with the omicron subvariant have mild symptoms, and relatively few in Nassau are hospitalized because of COVID-19.

“We are certainly not anywhere near a crisis, and we’re nowhere near being in a position to mandate masks or anything else at this point,” he said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Thursday that “COVID-19 is still here and we encourage all residents to take the necessary precautions.”

X. Cristofer Damianos, principal of Damianos Realty Group LLC based in Smithtown, said tenants in his company’s office buildings are neither imposing new masking rules nor returning to work-from-home strategies.

Damianos said politicians may be wary of ordering a return to mask wearing.

“People just don’t like wearing masks, and, more importantly, they don’t want to be told to wear masks,” he said.

Mara Levi, owner of Mara’s Southern Kitchen in Syosset, said she has not noticed a big change in customer behavior as COVID-19 numbers rise, but “more people are coming in with masks, we’re doing more takeout, more people are requesting curbside pickup.”

She “is not requiring that customers wear masks,” she said, and “it would have to be really bad” for her to do so.

With Erica Marcus and Ken Schachter

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