This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Matt Clark, Scott Eidler, Bart Jones and James T. Madore. It was written by Jones.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is lifting on Thursday a state mandate requiring a mask or proof of vaccination to enter indoor public places, including restaurants, stores, gyms, theaters and offices.

The move was seen by some as a major step toward returning to some sense of normalcy as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, though some medical experts said it was premature.

Local counties, cities and businesses will still have the option to mandate masking or proof of vaccination, but it will not be required, Hochul said. The governor expects many people to continue to wear masks voluntarily as protection from the virus, she added.

What to know

  • Gov. Kathy Hochul ended a mandate requiring a mask or proof of vaccination to enter indoor public places, including restaurants, stores, gyms, theaters and offices.
  • The move, which goes into effect Thursday, got mixed reviews from medical experts, with some saying it is appropriate and others maintaining that it is premature.
  • Local counties, cities and businesses will still have the option to mandate masking or proof of vaccination, but it will not be required.

"At this time, we say that it’s the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor businesses and let counties, cities and businesses make their own decisions on what they want to do with respect to mask or the vaccination requirement," she said.

Mask requirements continue in locations such as health care facilities, nursing homes, jails, transportation systems, homeless shelters and schools.

The dramatic drop in COVID-19 indicators over recent weeks amid the omicron surge led Hochul to end the mandate, she said.

"New Yorkers, this is what we’ve been waiting for — tremendous progress after two long years," Hochul said at a news briefing Wednesday. "And we’re not done, but this is trending in a very, very good direction, and that is why we are now approaching a new phase in this pandemic."

Hochul cautioned that she might reimpose a mandate if COVID-19 indicators jump again.

Martine Hackett, director of public health programs at Hofstra University, saw the lifting of the mandate as a watershed in the pandemic.

"It certainly feels like a milestone moment and a turning point in the trajectory of the pandemic," she said. "We are getting toward a certain endpoint."

DAILY POSITIVITY RATE

Nassau: 4.6%

Suffolk: 3.3%

Statewide: 3.67%   

7-DAY POSITIVITY RATE

Nassau: 4.6%

Suffolk: 4.6%

Statewide: 4.11%

Source: New York State Department of Health

Medical experts gave mixed reviews to Hochul's lifting of the mandate, which has not been enforced in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

"This is a measured move that keeps vulnerable populations safe while allowing for more freedom in other public spaces," said Dr. Jean Marie Osborne, an associate professor of health policy at Molloy College. "We still need to exercise caution around vulnerable populations, such as in nursing homes, and in schools where kids can easily share the virus with others."

Dr. Mangala Narasimhan, senior vice president for critical care services at Northwell Health, said she had a "mixed reaction" to ending the mandate.

"I understand that as the rates come down and we’ve been doing this for two years that we need to get back to some sort of normalcy," she said.

"I think the next few weeks will be really telling. Are we going to see a big spike? I think we have to watch that closely," she added. "Our hospitals are still busy. Our ICUs are still full of COVID patients. What I don’t want to see is a big backtrack in the numbers and we get more overwhelmed than we already are."

Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said "it’s still too early to drop mask mandates in businesses." The omicron variant is still circulating at high levels, he noted, with a 4.5% seven-day positivity average on Long Island and around 10% in some areas upstate.

"These rates are very high and indicate high levels of risk for spread," Clouston said. "Even as rates decline from the holiday surge, we still have positivity rates across the state that exceed the positivity rates right at the peak of the delta wave."

Small businesses and chambers of commerce endorsed the lifting of the mask mandate in downtowns across Long Island.

"It’s a relief," said Eric Alexander, founder of the LI Main Street Alliance, which represents 45 downtowns undergoing revitalization. "Businesses can now make the decision to continue to mask their staff if they feel that’s what works for their customers. … But removing the mandate removes businesses from being arbiters, judges, the mask police."

Alexander and others said many small businesses likely will continue to offer masks to customers and require employees to wear them.

"I think businesses can create an environment that is safe for their customer base by their own decision," Alexander said. "They want to make the customers happy, but they don’t want to be in the middle of the mask wars."

Hochul is facing another major decision on her mask mandate in schools. On Wednesday, she said students would be sent home with kits to facilitate two tests after winter break, which ends Feb. 28. The test results and other metrics will help guide a decision on that mandate.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman on Wednesday responded to Hochul’s news by repeating his call for the requirement to end in schools immediately. "There is no reason to have a mask mandate for our schools," he said.

Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski) called Hochul’s decision to lift the mandate for indoor public places "welcome news," but said ending the restrictions in "some places but not others makes little sense."

"As COVID-19 rates drop dramatically, and vaccine and booster rates continue to rise, it is time to end the mask mandate altogether and restore some normalcy to New York’s schoolchildren," Barclay added.

Medical experts have warned about lifting the mandate in schools before the onset of warmer weather, which would allow for open windows and improved ventilation in classrooms.

Hochul’s decision on indoor public places comes as states around the country start to dismantle COVID-19 mitigation measures amid frustration with the pandemic's continuing impact on daily life.

New Jersey and Connecticut, for instance, plan to drop their school mask mandates in the coming weeks.

It's unclear the extent to which New York City plans to keep its various mandates — including its vaccine mandates covering all public and private employees and indoor venues including restaurants, bars and concert halls.

In a statement, Mayor Eric Adams' office said the "city continues to have a number of vaccine mandates to further protect New Yorkers," under its Key to NYC program. The statement didn't say what the near future might bring.

The statement said a mask mandate in city schools would continue for the remainder of the school year.

The statewide mandate for indoor public places took effect on Dec. 13 as COVID-19 levels started to rise. The omicron variant fueled record-breaking positivity levels and numbers of cases over the subsequent weeks.

The governor had described it as a temporary measure, and after being extended, it was scheduled to expire on Thursday. COVID-19 levels have dropped sharply in the last few weeks, though they are still not as low as last spring and summer.

Long Island's seven-day average for positivity dropped under 1% from mid-May last year through early July, as compared with 4.58% in test results from Tuesday.

The region registered 708 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, compared with a low of 30 on June 29.

Long Island hit a high of more than 14,000 new daily cases during the omicron surge, and a seven-day positivity average of nearly 27%.

Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health, said earlier this week that the data justifies Hochul's move to end the indoor mask mandate for public spaces.

"As cautious and generally as conservative and as pro-mask as I generally am, I do think that rates are dramatically lower. I do think it is time to react and open up in view of the data," he said.

Other area health experts expressed concern in recent days about lifting the mandate as winter weather continues to drive more people indoors.

"Remember omicron is not gone, it’s going down," said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital.

Clouston has argued for a "stepped approach" for indoor spaces. That would allow big-box stores and other larger businesses to drop the mandate first, given their air ventilation and space for social distancing.

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