CAPITAL REGION – New Yorkers will be required to wear face masks in public indoor places beginning Monday, until at least Jan. 15, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday.
Businesses or venues that have implemented a vaccine requirement are exempted from the new rule, Hochul said.
The requirement, set in place as statewide COVID-19 rates climb, aims to address the winter surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations statewide, Hochul said.
It also aligns with the federal Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations for communities with substantial and high transmission.
Violators could be fined up to $1,000, Hochul said.
A previous facemask mandate had been lifted in June by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Todd Garofano, executive director of Discover Schenectady, said it was difficult news for a hospitality industry that had already been hard-hit by the pandemic.
“Here we are back with mask mandates for those businesses that don’t have a vaccination policy,” Garofano said. “We can all just hope that this is going to be temporary when they look at this on Jan. 15, that we get through this next hurdle. But it’s certainly another challenge that’s put in front of this industry as we’re trying to rebound.”
Local businesses were already asking about how they could adhere to the state’s requirements, and what enforcement would look like, Garofano said.
“All those questions are coming up again,” he said. “We’ve gone through this before, in each of the reopening phases and things like that. There’s always an element of vagueness to these mandates, and I think sometimes that’s on purpose.”
Patrol officers in the Electricity City will continue to take a hands-off approach to enforcement, according to Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford.
“Like last time, we will advise about the mandate, but will not be participating in the enforcement,” Clifford said Friday. “We encourage compliance but rely on state agencies to enforce mandate compliance.”
Melissa Fleischut, president and chief executive officer of the New York State Restaurant Association in Albany, said the association appreciated the governor’s application of the mandate across all businesses and public places.
“The hospitality industry wasn’t singled out in any way,” Fleischut said, recalling that last year during the holidays, when COVID rates had also spiked, the state had set a curfew on the industry, and large metropolitan areas were closed for indoor dining.
At that time there was also a requirement for patrons to buy food whenever they purchased alcohol on the premises.
“In comparison,” Fleischut said, “a mask mandate that applies to all businesses and all public places, doesn’t seem as bad as what we faced in previous times.”
At the collegiate level, Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs updated its vaccination policies to require that faculty, staff, and students receive COVID-19 booster shots by the start of the spring semester or as soon as they become eligible.
“In accordance with the College’s commitment to providing equal opportunities to all individuals without regard to protected status, the College will accommodate individuals’ medical needs and sincerely held religious beliefs, provided the requested accommodation is reasonable and does not create an undue hardship for the College or pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others or the individual requesting an exemption from this requirement,” the school said in a statement Friday.
The policy recommendation was presented and approved during Friday’s Institutional Policy and Planning Committee meeting, which included staff, faculty, and student representatives, the college said in a statement.
Next week, the college’s human resources department will provide employees with additional details regarding its updated vaccination policy, including instructions for submitting proof of vaccination booster shots, and links to forms for requesting a medical or religious exemption. Health services will provide similar information and instructions to students.
“As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the health and safety of our entire community continue to be our top priority. The CDC states that COVID-19 boosters are safe and effective, and we are confident that they will be beneficial in allowing us to manage and ensure the in-person learning experiences and community engagement that we are all eager to continue in the spring semester,” the college said.
Rev. Nicolle Harris, pastor of Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church in Schenectady, said the mandate would have no impact on services because the church has been meeting virtually during cold weather months. It doesn’t plan to resume in-person services until March.
During the warmer months of the pandemic, the church had held in-person services in its parking lot, where it could implement social-distancing protocols more easily, she said.
“Government, churches, everybody’s trying to do things to keep people safe,” Harris said, adding someone affiliated with the church tested positive for the coronavirus Friday. “This is the reality that we’re still dealing with, and I respect the government’s decision.”
In Saratoga Springs, the city’s Recreation Department discontinued its relaxed facemask policy for some athletes inside city facilities.
According to a memorandum by John Hirliman, administrative director of recreation, the city previously exempted athletes competing indoors who were “unable to tolerate a face covering for physical activity.”
Hochul said the facemask mandate is also based on the state’s weekly seven-day case rate as well as increasing hospitalizations.
The measure is effective Monday through Jan. 15, after which the state will reevaluate the matter, Hochul said. The new measure brings added layers of mitigation during the holidays when more time is spent indoors shopping, gathering, and visiting holiday-themed destinations, she said.
“As Governor, my two top priorities are to protect the health of New Yorkers and to protect the health of our economy,” Hochul said in a statement. “The temporary measures I am taking today will help accomplish this through the holiday season. We shouldn’t have reached the point where we are confronted with a winter surge, especially with the vaccine at our disposal, and I share many New Yorkers’ frustration that we are not past this pandemic yet. I want to thank the more than 80% of New Yorkers who have done the right thing to get fully vaccinated. If others will follow suit, these measures will no longer be necessary.
“I have warned for weeks that additional steps could be necessary, and now we are at that point based upon three metrics: Increasing cases, reduced hospital capacity, and insufficient vaccination rates in certain areas,” Hochul added.
Since Thanksgiving, the statewide seven-day average case rate has increased by 43% and hospitalizations have increased by 29%. While the percentage of New Yorkers fully vaccinated continues to increase—gaining 2% from Thanksgiving weekend to now—the uptick is not fast enough to completely curb the spread of the virus, particularly among communities with low vaccination coverage.
Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said: “Community spread requires a community-minded solution, as the Omicron variant emerges and the overwhelmingly dominant Delta variant continues to circulate. We have the tools we need to protect against the virus – and now we must ensure we use them. There are tools each individual can use, and there are actions we can take as government. Getting vaccinated protects you, and wearing a mask is how we will better protect each other. Both vaccination and mask-wearing are needed to slow this COVID-19 winter surge.”
A violation of any provision of the facemask measure is subject to civil and criminal penalties, including a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation, Hochul’s office said. Local health departments are asked to enforce the requirements.
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.