ALBANY, N.Y. — With coronavirus cases on the decline and mask mandates facing pushback, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday that she would eliminate the indoor mask mandate in New York but would leave in place a mask requirement in schools, at least for now.
The governor said she would allow the indoor mask mandate, which required businesses to ask for proof of full vaccination or require masks indoors at all times, to expire on Thursday. The move was seen as a watershed moment in the state’s coronavirus pandemic response, reflecting the continued decline of the Omicron variant, now understood to cause milder effects than scientists originally knew.
The lifting of the mandate will have a far-reaching impact on many public settings statewide, including retail shops, restaurants and malls as well as workplaces. Localities and businesses will no longer be required to enforce mask wearing or ask for proof of vaccination, but they are still free to do so if they so wish, Ms. Hochul said.
“It was an emergency temporary measure,” said Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, stressing that the move on Wednesday was meant to “empower” local governments and individuals.
“Numbers are coming down, and it is time to adapt,” she said. “I suspect we’re going to see many, many people still wearing their masks. We are not saying it’s over.”
Ms. Hochul said state officials would revisit the school mask mandate in early March, after students return from midwinter break, and officials have an opportunity to scrutinize case numbers in schools and distribute test kits to students.
In places like New York City, which already had stringent mask rules, the indoor mandate had been implemented with little controversy. But it still became a political quagmire for Ms. Hochul, drawing legal challenges, refusals to enforce the rule in conservative corners of the state and criticism from one of her Democratic primary rivals.
The mask mandate in schools, in particular, sparked heated feuds among parents, teachers and students over public health and individual liberties. Ms. Hochul came under increased pressure to lift the mandate this week, after neighboring states also led by Democratic governors, including New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware, pledged to do so in the coming weeks.
Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, a Republican, welcomed the end of mask mandates for businesses but said in a statement that it was “absolutely outrageous” that Ms. Hochul kept one in place for schools “with no established off-ramp.”
“The public deserves to know which metrics and so-called science her administration used to make this misguided decision,” he said.
The governor, state officials said, was not swayed by politics or even the decisions of neighboring states, also led by Democratic governors, to ease mask rules this week.
State officials said that Ms. Hochul was basing her decision purely on the latest data and consultations with public health experts, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, and talks with hospital leaders, labor groups and local officials.
Even so, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday that “now is not the moment” to drop mask mandates in schools and other public spaces, though some states have rushed to do so.
Ms. Hochul said on Wednesday that “the numbers are trending much better and there definitely is an end in sight” for the mandate in schools, but that “students still need adults looking out for their health, this is all about protecting our children.” She cited statistics that indicated bed capacity at hospitals had improved and that showed the statewide positivity rate at about 4 percent, down from a peak of 23 percent on Jan. 2.
“This has become a polarized conversation even within the medical community,” Dr. Mary Bassett, the state’s health commissioner, said on Wednesday. “I think it’s best when we stick to the facts. Unfortunately, even the facts have become contested, but I am confident we are looking at a range of facts and the right ones.”
The lapse of the indoor mask mandate could be a boon for companies struggling to attract workers back to offices. The Omicron surge had derailed many return-to-office plans over the winter, forcing many parts of Manhattan’s commercial centers to remain eerily empty over the past few months.
Some business leaders said that the rule requiring masks in workplaces further delayed those plans, arguing that employees preferred to work remotely than be required to wear masks at their desks.
“People are operating fine remotely, and they just don’t want to come back to the office wearing masks,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president and chief executive of Partnership for New York City, an influential business group. “The feeling is they might as well be on Zoom. Assuming it’s safe, employers would be glad to get rid of the mask mandate and hope that it will encourage a broader return to the office.”
Even though lifting the so-called mask-or-vax mandate is seen as a turning point in the state’s virus response, there were still certain things Ms. Hochul’s move will not do.
Certain local, federal and other requirements around masking in specific settings will be unaffected, meaning masks will still be required on trains, airplanes and buses, as well as health care facilities, such as hospitals and nursing homes.
In New York City, for example, proof of vaccination is required to dine indoors, attend events at arenas, work out at gyms and go to the movies. That requirement has been in place through a program known as “Key to N.Y.C.,” which was implemented through an executive order from the mayor. The order has been renewed every five days, most recently on Tuesday.
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Officials in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have all announced that they would end mask requirements for students and school employees over the coming weeks, underscoring an intentional shift by officials to begin treating the virus as a part of daily life nearly two years into the pandemic.
The cascade of recent mask announcements seemed to stem from conversations that took place within the National Governors Association and a recent meeting with the White House. Follow-up calls last week between the chiefs of staff of various governors, including Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, the vice chairman of the association, created additional momentum.
On Monday, Mr. Murphy, a Democrat, announced that he would eliminate the state’s school mask mandate in the second week of March. Democratic leaders in other states followed suit: Connecticut said its in-school mask mandate would expire by Feb. 28, and Delaware and Oregon will both end their mandates by March 31.
The details of mask mandates, and the politics around them, have varied from state to state.
New Jersey, for example, has not had an indoor mask mandate since Memorial Day; there are no vaccination-to-enter requirements at gyms or restaurants, except in Newark, which has imposed stricter restrictions than the rest of the state.
The move in New York — where more than 67,000 people have died from the coronavirus — comes as the state’s seven-day average of cases has dropped to its lowest level since Nov. 30, with hospitalizations also on the decline.
The virus-related restrictions in New York have ebbed and flowed over the past year as officials tinkered with and rejiggered mandates in response to case numbers.
As the Omicron variant fueled a sudden surge in cases in mid-December, Gov. Hochul imposed the mask-or-vaccine mandate, requiring businesses to ask for proof of full vaccination or require mask wearing at all times.
Ms. Hochul’s move faced backlash in more conservative and rural pockets of the state where vaccination rates were trailing and wearing masks was not as routine. It sparked one high-profile political flare-up on Long Island, where the recently elected Republican executive in Nassau County, Bruce Blakeman, vocally defied the requirement.
Some of the pushback amounted mostly to political rhetoric, but a court challenge to Ms. Hochul’s mask rules seemed a more credible threat. A judge had struck down the state’s mask mandate before an appeals court judge intervened and temporarily reinstated the rule while it was being appealed in court.
Reporting was contributed by Grace Ashford, Lola Fadulu, Sharon Otterman, Dana Rubinstein and Tracey Tully.