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Hochul's statewide COVID-19 mask mandate draws blowback in New York

New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul speaks to reporters at a COVID-19 vaccination site at the Aqueduct Race Track, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, in the Queens borough of New York.
Mary Altaffer
Associated Press
New York Governor Kathy Hochul

Questions emerged Monday over whether new mask and vaccination requirements imposed by Gov. Kathy Hochul will be carried out by the businesses that must comply with them and the local governments that are being asked to enforce them.

The rising virus transmission rate in portions of upstate New York prompted the new rules, which say businesses and public venues must require either universal masking, or have all patrons show proof of vaccination. The two policies cannot be combined.

On Monday, many businesses across the state posted new signs explaining the new ordinance. Many seemed to opt for a mask requirement instead of asking customers whether they are vaccinated.

Hochul on Monday was in New York City, where the transmission rate is relatively low, at around 2.5%, compared to nearly 10% in western New York. Hochul was holding a news conference on an ongoing project to rebuild the John F. Kennedy International Airport, but she answered questions from journalists about the new mandates.

Some upstate counties said they're not enforcing the mask mandate, including Livingston, south of Rochester; Madison, near Syracuse; and Dutchess and Rockland counties in the Hudson Valley. Hochul said for now she will not use state health department inspectors to try to get the counties to comply.

"I’m going to monitor what’s going on in the various counties,” Hochul said. “But I’m not attempting to be heavy-handed.”

She said she believes the majority of the state’s 62 counties will carry out the new rules, and she said some have asked the state to act to provide “cover” for them on a controversial topic. New York City and some upstate counties — including Erie, Schenectady and Albany — have previously imposed restrictions, including indoor mask mandates and proof of vaccination requirements.

“I do have faith in New Yorkers,” Hochul said. “I believe the vast majority want to do what’s right, they want to put this pandemic behind us. They want to make sure we never have to go back to the days of being in lockdown.”

The new rules include fines of $1,000 for businesses or individuals who fail to comply.

The plan received criticism from Long Island Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is challenging Hochul in the Democratic primary for governor. Suozzi said he is not against the mask mandate, but he does object to the way it’s being rolled out.

“Lack of a comprehensive plan is causing chaos and confusion and disarray,” said Suozzi, who added the governor needs to “sell” her plan to the public.

Suozzi said Hochul should be holding daily comprehensive briefings with a COVID-19 task force and doing more to promote vaccine booster sites.

Hochul’s predecessor, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, won plaudits for his daily COVID-19 briefings in 2020, and even won an Emmy for his presentations. Cuomo resigned in disgrace last August over multiple scandals, including accusations of sexual harassment from multiple women. His Emmy has since been rescinded.

Suozzi was joined by Charlie Cassara, who leads the U.S. Fitness Coalition. He said gym owners are scrambling to comply with the rules. He said memberships often run month to month, and customers are angry that the new rules requiring they be masked while exercising are occurring halfway through December.

“We received approximately about 100 phone calls and emails from gym owners today who have lost anywhere from 85 to 100 of their members,” said Cassara, who added they are asking to put their memberships on pause or be reimbursed for the remainder of the month. “Because they don’t either want to wear a mask or they don’t want to show proof of vaccination.”

Hochul said another restriction she imposed on nearly three dozen hospitals across the state that bans elective surgery is starting to work. She said bed capacity at the facilities, which had been at less than 10%, is slowly starting to ease.

She’s also been dealing with staffing shortages at many hospitals, and New York’s National Guard has been deployed at some short-staffed nursing homes. Also, nurses from Northwell Health on Long Island have been temporarily transferred to the Buffalo area to help with staffing shortages there.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.