Incoming Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman on Tuesday said he will not enforce the governor's mask mandate for indoor public places without a vaccine requirement. Newsday's Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday / Cecilia Dowd; Kendall Rodriguez; Governor Kathy Hochul's Office; Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's Office/Cecilia Dowd; Kendall Rodriguez; Governor Kathy Hochul's Office; Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's Office

This story was reported by John Asbury, Lisa L. Colangelo and Bart Jones. It was written by Jones.

Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in New York State have jumped 70% since Thanksgiving, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Tuesday, as she asserted that most elected county officials in the state will enforce her new mask or vaccine requirement for indoor public places.

But Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat like Hochul, said Tuesday he will not do "hard enforcement" of the mandate and instead will focus on "education" of business owners.

He joins incoming Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, the Republican taking office on Jan. 1, who said he will order county workers not to enforce the state order, including by not issuing fines for violations. The administration of the current Nassau executive, Laura Curran, said on Monday that she will "not be actively enforcing" the mandate in her final weeks, but would respond to complaints about violations.

What to know

  • Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in New York State have jumped 70% since Thanksgiving, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Tuesday, a figure that she said inspired her mask or vaccine mandate for indoor public spaces.
  • The number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people statewide has increased by 58% on a seven-day average since Thanksgiving, with Long Island seeing the third highest number of any region in the state.
  • Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and the incoming Nassau executive Bruce Blakeman all plan either no "hard enforcement" of the mask mandate or, in Blakeman's case, no enforcement at all.

The number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people statewide has increased by 58% on a seven-day average since Thanksgiving, Hochul said at a news briefing, explaining why she implemented the mandate, which went into effect Monday and will be reassessed on Jan. 15.

Long Island’s rate of 67.74 cases per 100,000 people is the third-highest in the state, according to figures the governor showed Tuesday.

The hospitalization figure "was the trigger I needed for the order," Hochul said. "Look at what’s happened just in that short time."

Last Friday, when the governor announced the mandate, hospitalizations had increased 29% since Thanksgiving, she said.

On Long Island, hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients have more than doubled in the last month, according to state data, though available hospital bed capacity this week is the highest of any region in the state, at 23%.

Hochul asserted that county leaders who represent about three-fourths of the state population support the mandate. But more than a half-dozen county executives, along with Blakeman, say they will not enforce it.

Hochul on Monday said the state will not compel counties to enforce the mandate. The order is supposed to be enforced by local health departments. Violators could face civil and criminal penalties along with fines of up to $1,000 for each violation.

'Communicating with residents' in Suffolk

Bellone said Tuesday that although COVID-19 numbers are rising in Suffolk, he will not enforce the mandate with fines or punitive action.

"We’ve always taken the approach, as we seek to protect public health, that we're going to educate, inform, and that’s exactly what we’re doing," he said. "We’re reaching out to businesses, we’re communicating with residents about what the state guidance is, and that’s what we’ll continue to do. We’re not going to do hard enforcement of this. That’s really something we’ve never done."

Some critics, including Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who is running against the incumbent in the Democratic primary for governor, accused Hochul of botching the rollout of the mandate.

Hochul said Tuesday she consulted with a wide range of local officials before announcing the mandate and most backed it.

Suozzi said announcing the mandate on Friday and starting it on Monday created "chaos, confusion and delay" since businesses did not have time to prepare.

There was also confusion among elected officials, with others also saying they would enforce the mandate only by "educating" businesses about the requirements.

Blakeman repeated his opposition on Tuesday at a news conference.

"As of Jan. 1, I will instruct our health department and other departments to stand down and not enforce the mask mandate and not issue fines," he said.

After speaking with "our health commissioner and health care professionals, I have determined we are not in crisis in Nassau County," Blakeman said. "I see no reason to have a mask mandate."

William Biamonte, chief of staff of the Nassau County Legislature's Minority Caucus, criticized Blakeman's announcement, saying there were "political motivations behind this decision."

Blakeman said despite Nassau's rising COVID-19 infection rate, at 6.2% on a seven-day average according to test results reported on Monday, the county was not facing a bed shortage at hospitals or ICUs as seen in areas upstate and in Western New York.

"The most accurate indicator is how many people are being admitted to the hospital and ICU and right now that is not a concern. That would be the driving factor in changing my opinion and course we should take," Blakeman said.

"If we get a spike in admissions then you have to reevaluate not only the mask mandate but everything you’re doing," he added. "At this point we’re concerned, but we’re not in crisis."

Behind the COVID-19 hospitalization spike on LI

On Nov. 14, the state reported 200 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Long Island. By Nov. 23, a key travel day before the Thanksgiving holiday, that number had ticked up to 293. And on Dec. 13, the population had swelled to 537.

At Northwell Health, the state’s largest health care system, COVID-19 hospitalizations are increasing but at a much slower rate than last year when vaccines were not available, according to Dr. John D’Angelo, Northwell’s chief of integrated operations and senior vice president of emergency medicine.

Last year at this time Northwell had 879 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, while the latest numbers show 365 across its facilities, he said. Northwell has 19 hospitals statewide, including 11 on Long Island.

About 28% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients are vaccinated, D'Angelo said. That group tends to be older, with chronic health problems and suppressed immune systems.

Dr. Adhi Sharma, president of Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said there was a "significant spike" in COVID-19 hospitalizations after Thanksgiving but they're starting to trend down again.

The hospital currently has about 12 COVID-19 patients, a decrease from the nearly two dozen after Thanksgiving, he said. Before the holiday, the hospital only had about three COVID-19 patients.

"What we are concerned about is we will see a similar spike after Christmas and New Year’s holidays with all the gatherings," Sharma said. "That is why it’s important for people to get vaccinated and get their booster shots because that reduces hospitalizations."

Nassau and Suffolk are now producing more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases on some days, and the region’s positivity level on a seven-day average was 6.77% in test results reported on Monday. As recently as Oct. 28, it was 2.08%.

In results from Monday, Suffolk logged 714 new cases while Nassau had 733, for a total of 1,447. New York City tallied 3,124 new cases.

Across the state, 57 people died on Monday of causes linked to COVID-19, including four in Suffolk and two in Nassau.

Eric Alexander, founder of Long Island Main Street Alliance, criticized the mandate for putting pressure on businesses to enforce it.

"Small businesses are frustrated with the NYS mandates for masks or vaccinations," Alexander said in a statement. "The biggest problem is not that there shouldn’t be regulations or that the businesses don’t care about public health, but it’s forcing small businesses to enforce these rules, which create division among their customer base."

"The coronavirus regulations to date have unfairly burdened the small business community," he added. "These regulations continue that trend during a holiday season where businesses were looking to make up for some of the losses they incurred during the pandemic."

Hochul noted that Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of when Northwell Health nurse Sandra Lindsay became the first person in the United States to be inoculated with the approved COVID-19 vaccine.

The governor said the vaccine is the ultimate solution to the pandemic, but 30% of New Yorkers are still not fully vaccinated.

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