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New York's mask mandate is not expected to end anytime soon

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

It seems likely that New Yorkers will continue to be required to wear masks in indoor public spaces for at least another month.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, who recently extended the mandate through February 10, said it’s likely the rule will be continued after that.

The COVID-19 infection rate has declined by 92% from a high of around 90,000 on January 7 to 7,119 on January 31, and 43% fewer people are in the hospital with the disease since a high point of 12,452 on January 12. Though it appears that the Omicron variant has peaked in New York, Hochul said the virus has already thrown many curveballs, and it’s not time to relax restrictions just yet.

“We’re not taking our foot off the gas when it comes to fighting the pandemic,” Hochul said. “The masks are one element of that.”

There were 122 New Yorkers who died from COVID-19 on January 31, and more than 7,000 people are still in the hospital. The vast number of those hospitalized for the disease are unvaccinated.

Hochul, speaking in the Bronx, said health care facilities are still dealing with staffing shortages. In response, the state’s hospitals are currently receiving aid from 225 members of New York’s National Guard, the U.S. military’s medical teams, and 110 federally provided ambulance units.

Hochul said she hopes that her plan, detailed in her state budget proposal, to spend $4 billion over the next several years for health care worker retention and recruitment will help alleviate those problems.

Nearly 74% of all New Yorkers are now fully vaccinated, but among 5- to 11-year-olds, who became eligible for the vaccine in early November, the rate is under 30%. Those younger than 5 are not yet eligible, but Pfizer has submitted clinical trial data to the federal Food and Drug Administration on the efficacy of the shots for babies as young as six months, and approval could come in a matter of weeks.

Hochul said she’s also having “conversations” with school superintendents regarding masking policies.

The governor’s comments came a day after a small number of protesters rallied outside the state Capitol to end mask mandates.

One of Hochul’s political opponents, Republican candidate for governor and Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin, spoke to the group. He said children are suffering the ill effects of nearly two years of COVID-related lockdowns and restrictions, calling it “child abuse.”

“As governor of the state of New York, on Day One, all COVID mandates end,” Zeldin promised as the crowd cheered. “There is no generation more desperate to return to normalcy than our kids.”

Hochul said any decision to ease the restrictions will be based on science and data, and in consultation with the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett.

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.