New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and other Democratic officials scrambled to preserve a state mask mandate Tuesday after a judge struck it down on the grounds that the state health department needed legislative approval to impose the rule.
The New York State Education Department told schools to keep mask rules in place while state Attorney General Letitia James filed a notice of appeal in an attempt to stay Monday’s ruling.
Students in several Long Island districts arrived at school maskless. The districts told parents that face coverings would be optional because of the ruling.
“I would say to the governor, ‘Bend to the will of the people.’ The will of the people is that we want to get back to normal. We want our kids to have a childhood. We are tired of sending our kids to schools with masks. And, by the way, this is about choice. If a parent chooses to send their child with a mask, that’s fine,” said Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman. He recently defied the state by signing an order for school boards to decide whether students wear masks.
Ms. Hochul ignored Mr. Blakeman’s entreaties and said she would fight to restore the statewide mandate, which she imposed last month during a rising wave of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
“My responsibility as governor is to protect New Yorkers throughout this public health crisis, and these measures help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives,” she said. “We strongly disagree with this ruling, and we are pursuing every option to reverse this immediately.”
It’s the latest skirmish in a battle raging across the U.S. over government authority to mandate public health actions. Flare-ups over the rules are fraying nerves and resulting in a patchwork of COVID-19 strategies as elected leaders try to tamp down the spread of the omicron variant and restore normalcy in the third year of the pandemic.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, signed an executive order after his inauguration this month that allows parents to choose whether their children are masked instead of following mandates.
Several school boards sued the governor. They said the order treads on their right to set policies locally and flouts a state law requiring schools to follow COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “to the maximum extent practicable” until Aug. 1.
Mr. Youngkin issued his order after a resounding victory in November that focused on parental choice. His campaign rallied Republicans and attracted voters who were tired of upheaval and COVID-19 rules.
Some analysts find the political jockeying over a public health crisis troubling.
“America has become so divided on the response to COVID, and the main battlegrounds have been two basic scientific tools: vaccines and masks. These scientific tools should not become political footballs. And to add to the divisiveness, advocates on both sides are using the courts as a weapon,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University. “There will come a time in the not too distant future when masks won’t be essential and we can leave the decision to individuals. But that time has not yet come.”
Some governors have decided it is time to get out of the way. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, said in December that the “emergency is over” and everyone has had a chance to be vaccinated for COVID-19, so he will not enforce mask mandates.
“You know, public health [officials] don’t get to tell people what to wear; that’s just not their job,” he told Colorado Public Radio in December.
President Biden’s vaccine mandates also ran into roadblocks in courts, leading the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Tuesday to cancel its vaccinate-or-test rule on large private-sector companies.
Now, Mr. Biden is pleading with companies to impose their own vaccine mandates and promoting voluntary programs to stem the omicron wave, a sign that responsibility for pandemic safety is gradually shifting to the shoulders of employers and individuals.
The U.S. Postal Service will deliver up to four free tests per household upon request, and the Biden administration is making N95-grade masks available free of charge at pharmacies across the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people to wear masks in public indoor spaces in counties that have high or substantial transmission of the coronavirus, which at the moment is most of the country. Mask mandates, however, are generally the purview of governors and local officials.
Fights over mask rules are playing out as infections begin to drop, giving scientists optimism that the worst is over. Daily deaths are averaging 2,000 in the U.S., below the peak of 3,200 per day last January.
New York state is recording about 25,000 new cases per day, a sharp decline from the 75,000 per day two weeks ago but still an elevated level in all-time terms.
Ms. Hochul said in December that New Yorkers must wear masks within indoor public spaces that do not have vaccine requirements. Dr. Mary Bassett, the state health commissioner, determined that the rule was needed to rein in the winter surge of COVID-19.
However, Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademaker ruled that New York was not under a state of emergency when the mask mandate was announced. Also, the state legislature last year enacted a law limiting the governor’s emergency powers.
“While the intentions of Commissioner Bassett and Governor Hochul appear to be well-aimed squarely at doing what they believe is the right to protect the citizens of New York State, they must take their case to the state legislature,” the judge wrote.
Rep. Elise Stefanik and other Republicans praised the ruling, though New York Mayor Eric Adams said he will retain a local mask mandate in schools even as counties east of the city relaxed their rules in line with the state-level decision.
“I believe it’s unfortunate that [the mandate] was struck down, and I believe those jurisdictions that are using it as an opportunity to remove mandates are making a big mistake,” Mr. Adams, a Democrat, said on 1010 WINS radio in New York City. “We’re going to continue our mandates in schools.”