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New York will not force counties to comply with sweeping mask mandate, says governor

Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) on Monday said that the state government will not force counties to comply with the sweeping new mask mandate that went into effect today.

"We have left this to the counties to enforce. We hope that counties will enforce it," Hochul told reporters.

"We expect that they will, we hope that they will, it's in the best interest of public health. But it also comes down to individual businesses doing the right thing as well. We're asking businesses to protect their customers and to protect their employees," she added.

Beginning on Dec. 13 and lasting through at least Jan. 15, masks are required in all public indoor places in New York for everyone over the age of 2 unless full vaccination is mandated in those places. That means stores, restaurants, offices, residential building lobbies, and other indoor venues must either require people to be fully vaccinated to enter or force them to wear masks.

For now, individuals are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second shot of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or the first shot of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the definition of fully vaccinated will soon change to include booster shots, according to White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The mask mandate was announced by Hochul last week in response to rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state. State officials will re-examine coronavirus conditions on Jan. 15 to determine whether to extend or end the mandate.

Any businesses that violate any provision of the mandate are subject to civil and criminal penalties, including a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation. Local health departments are being asked to enforce these requirements.

But some Republican county executives say they will not enforce the mandate. Rockland County Executive Ed Day (R) said Friday that the governor's office did not provide detailed information about the new masking requirements.

"I told the Governor’s staff that we cannot and will not enforce this requirement as it currently stands. How do you enforce something that’s based on a press release that does not contain adequate information and explanation?" Day said.

"I cannot and will not in good conscience redirect our Health Department to change their focus from the vaccination effort which entailed six clinics over the last two weeks that administered 141 vaccine doses and 1,244 booster doses. Especially with the 5–11-year-old cohort needing vaccinations and the 16–17-year-old cohort having just been approved to receive boosters," Day added. "That would be utterly reckless."

County officials in at least four other counties will not enforce the mandate either, including Livingston, Madison, Niagara, and Rensselaer counties.

“Governor Hochul derided the use of these types of measures just days ago,” David LeFeber, chairman of the Livingston County Board of Supervisors, said in a statement. “Now, we are back to Cuomo-era approaches. That is an unfortunate, and swift, switch of position by the Governor."

Nassau County Executive-elect Bruce Blakeman called the mandate a "shotgun approach."

"Over 97% of Nassau County adults have been vaccinated with at least their first dose and our outstanding health care facilities are not even close to capacity. While we continue to monitor this health care concern it is clear that Nassau County is not in crisis and State government should not paint us with the same broad brush as the rest of the State," Blakeman said. "I'm hopeful that the State will allow local determination rather than a shotgun approach."

Hochul defended the mandate as a "short-term, minor effort" to combat a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, compared to the strict lockdowns that prevented New Yorkers from leaving their homes last year.

"I will never let that happen to this state, I will continue to encourage people to get vaccinated and get that booster shot and that is truly the best path forward," she said.

"This is a short-term measure to protect us during a change in circumstances, which is that the infections are going up. Hospitalizations are going up. ICU patients are going up. Bed capacity is going down. And the vaccinations, while they are good, they are not where they could be in terms of everyone from age 5-years-old and up and I want people to get boosters."

New York State has seen a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases since Thanksgiving, according to the New York Times. The daily case average on Sunday was 9,638 , a 66% increase over the last 14 days.

Hochul said that if the statewide infection rate were as low as it was during the summer when masking requirements were lifted, there would be no need for the new mandate.

"If we were still at that point, if people had gotten vaccinated and gotten the boosters and we were still at one percent, we would not be having this conversation."

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