State health and education officials are urging people to wear masks indoors as COVID-19, flu and RSV infections increase on Long Island. Newsday TVs Steve Langford reports.  Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Hours after announcing a mask mandate, Nassau Community College reversed itself and dropped the policy on Friday after conversations with Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, officials said.

The college, with 14,000 students, initially had said it was requiring face coverings starting Monday because of rising levels of COVID-19 in the county.

But late Friday afternoon, college spokesperson Lindsey Angioletti said, "After additional discussions, the college will not be reinstating the mask policy."

Blakeman, a Republican who has opposed mask mandates, said in a statement that “at this time we are monitoring the spike in COVID diagnoses and have importantly not seen a spike in hospitalizations."

He said that after discussions with the NCC president Friday afternoon, “they are withdrawing their premature decision to mandate masks.”

The back-and-forth underscored how, nearly three years into the pandemic, mask mandates remain a volatile — and some say politicized — issue. While medical experts argue that masks help reduce spread of the deadly virus, others say the face coverings interfere too much with the educational process and that people are fed up with restrictions.

Officials said Friday they doubt mask mandates will make a widespread return to schools on Long Island — even as cases of COVID-19, the flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, are rising on Long Island and straining hospitals.

Long Island has the highest level of COVID-19 hospitalizations and new infections in the state, officials said this week, warning that the increase, coupled with current spikes in both influenza and RSV, could lead to a difficult winter.

Charmian Smith, interim vice president for academic student services at NCC, had announced earlier Friday that all students, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, would be required to use face coverings while indoors on campus.

"The safety of the NCC community is of the utmost importance,” Smith said in a statement. “The CDC has elevated Nassau County's 'community level' risk of COVID-19 transmission to high and given this update the College is reinstating the Mandatory Mask Policy."

Gov. Kathy Hochul allowed a school mask mandate to expire in March.

New York State Health Commissioner Mary T. Bassett and State Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa this week issued a letter urging schools and communities to “encourage” the use of masks and other “common sense” measures such as frequent hand-washing that can reduce transmission of COVID-19, flu and other viruses.

But Bassett said the state has no plans to mandate masks.

“There’s a limit to how much we can legislate people’s behavior,” Bassett said at a news conference with Hochul. “We in public health are now emphasizing that people can make decisions on their own.”

Earlier Friday, Blakeman said he also has no plans to require masks. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said through a spokesperson the county "is no longer under a State of Emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic and does not have jurisdiction over schools."

Suffolk's Health Department "continues to encourage all county residents to get vaccinated for both COVID and the flu as soon as possible, and to take necessary precautions to protect themselves," said spokesperson Marykate Guilfoyle.

Suffolk County Community College is not requiring masks at this time “but [is] closely monitoring our campus communities,” spokesman Drew Biondo said.

“Following SUNY’s mandate, we do require on-campus students to be vaccinated. We also monitor countywide rates of infection as well as rates of infection on our campuses,” he said.

Some school officials said Friday they doubt a mask mandate will be reimposed on a widespread basis because it is too politically explosive, even if face coverings previously did help tamp down cases of COVID-19.

“I do not believe currently that we will see a mask mandate coming from either the state, the state Education Department, or the state Department of Health or Nassau County” or local school districts, said Hank Grishman, superintendent of schools in Jericho.

Cases of COVID-19, flu and other viruses were kept “moderately low” throughout the pandemic in Jericho because of the masks, he said. “I do believe that masks during COVID was definitely a plus.”

But “people are reluctant to start a war," he said.

Dr. Dominick Palma, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said he highly doubts any local boards of education will move to bring back mask mandates, and that they are leaving the decision to state and county health officials.

“I do not believe that any school district would unilaterally put masks back in play without them being directed by the state," Palma told Newsday.

Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said masking definitely helps slow the spread of COVID-19, but he is uncertain mandates will come back.

“If they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it soon,” he said. “I think [masking] might be feasible as a short-term thing” until mid-January or so.

“But the argument around masks last time was pretty stiff,” he said. “With so many people being sick now as a response it may be more politically feasible.”

In their letter, Bassett and Rosa said “the number of laboratory-confirmed flu cases has nearly tripled over the past three weeks and flu hospitalizations have more than doubled.”

“In addition, COVID-19 continues to pose a significant threat, particularly for unvaccinated or under-vaccinated New Yorkers, as the virus remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States,” they wrote.

Hours after announcing a mask mandate, Nassau Community College reversed itself and dropped the policy on Friday after conversations with Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, officials said.

The college, with 14,000 students, initially had said it was requiring face coverings starting Monday because of rising levels of COVID-19 in the county.

But late Friday afternoon, college spokesperson Lindsey Angioletti said, "After additional discussions, the college will not be reinstating the mask policy."

Blakeman, a Republican who has opposed mask mandates, said in a statement that “at this time we are monitoring the spike in COVID diagnoses and have importantly not seen a spike in hospitalizations."

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Hours after announcing a mask mandate, Nassau Community College reversed itself and dropped the policy on Friday, officials said.

  • Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said “at this time we are monitoring the spike in COVID diagnoses and have importantly not seen a spike in hospitalizations."

  • The back-and-forth underscored how mask mandates remain a volatile — and some say politicized — issue.

He said that after discussions with the NCC president Friday afternoon, “they are withdrawing their premature decision to mandate masks.”

The back-and-forth underscored how, nearly three years into the pandemic, mask mandates remain a volatile — and some say politicized — issue. While medical experts argue that masks help reduce spread of the deadly virus, others say the face coverings interfere too much with the educational process and that people are fed up with restrictions.

Officials said Friday they doubt mask mandates will make a widespread return to schools on Long Island — even as cases of COVID-19, the flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, are rising on Long Island and straining hospitals.

Long Island has the highest level of COVID-19 hospitalizations and new infections in the state, officials said this week, warning that the increase, coupled with current spikes in both influenza and RSV, could lead to a difficult winter.

Charmian Smith, interim vice president for academic student services at NCC, had announced earlier Friday that all students, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, would be required to use face coverings while indoors on campus.

"The safety of the NCC community is of the utmost importance,” Smith said in a statement. “The CDC has elevated Nassau County's 'community level' risk of COVID-19 transmission to high and given this update the College is reinstating the Mandatory Mask Policy."

Gov. Kathy Hochul allowed a school mask mandate to expire in March.

Masks encouraged by NY officials

New York State Health Commissioner Mary T. Bassett and State Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa this week issued a letter urging schools and communities to “encourage” the use of masks and other “common sense” measures such as frequent hand-washing that can reduce transmission of COVID-19, flu and other viruses.

But Bassett said the state has no plans to mandate masks.

“There’s a limit to how much we can legislate people’s behavior,” Bassett said at a news conference with Hochul. “We in public health are now emphasizing that people can make decisions on their own.”

Earlier Friday, Blakeman said he also has no plans to require masks. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said through a spokesperson the county "is no longer under a State of Emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic and does not have jurisdiction over schools."

Suffolk's Health Department "continues to encourage all county residents to get vaccinated for both COVID and the flu as soon as possible, and to take necessary precautions to protect themselves," said spokesperson Marykate Guilfoyle.

Suffolk County Community College is not requiring masks at this time “but [is] closely monitoring our campus communities,” spokesman Drew Biondo said.

“Following SUNY’s mandate, we do require on-campus students to be vaccinated. We also monitor countywide rates of infection as well as rates of infection on our campuses,” he said.

'Reluctant to start a war'

Some school officials said Friday they doubt a mask mandate will be reimposed on a widespread basis because it is too politically explosive, even if face coverings previously did help tamp down cases of COVID-19.

“I do not believe currently that we will see a mask mandate coming from either the state, the state Education Department, or the state Department of Health or Nassau County” or local school districts, said Hank Grishman, superintendent of schools in Jericho.

Cases of COVID-19, flu and other viruses were kept “moderately low” throughout the pandemic in Jericho because of the masks, he said. “I do believe that masks during COVID was definitely a plus.”

But “people are reluctant to start a war," he said.

Dr. Dominick Palma, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said he highly doubts any local boards of education will move to bring back mask mandates, and that they are leaving the decision to state and county health officials.

“I do not believe that any school district would unilaterally put masks back in play without them being directed by the state," Palma told Newsday.

Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said masking definitely helps slow the spread of COVID-19, but he is uncertain mandates will come back.

“If they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it soon,” he said. “I think [masking] might be feasible as a short-term thing” until mid-January or so.

“But the argument around masks last time was pretty stiff,” he said. “With so many people being sick now as a response it may be more politically feasible.”

In their letter, Bassett and Rosa said “the number of laboratory-confirmed flu cases has nearly tripled over the past three weeks and flu hospitalizations have more than doubled.”

“In addition, COVID-19 continues to pose a significant threat, particularly for unvaccinated or under-vaccinated New Yorkers, as the virus remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States,” they wrote.

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