New York Businesses Ordered to Require Masks Indoors or Vaccine Proof
With New York State confronting a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Friday that the state would require that masks be worn indoors at all public spaces that do not require vaccination for entry.
The requirement, which takes effect Monday, means that unless their employees check for proof of vaccination, offices, shops, restaurants and other businesses must demand that patrons be masked. Those that do not comply could face civil and criminal penalties, including fines of up to $1,000 per violation, and local health departments are responsible for enforcement.
The move may not have a drastic effect in places like New York City, where those seeking to eat inside restaurants or attend theater performances already have to show vaccination proof. But it is likely to have a significant effect in some rural and conservative pockets of the state where vaccination rates are lagging and such requirements have not been imposed.
“The rest of the state now has a wake-up call,” Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, said at a news conference in Manhattan, adding that the rule would be in place until at least Jan. 15, when officials would reassess the measure.
The new requirement is the latest action taken by state officials in anticipation of a likely surge of coronavirus cases this winter, as cases continue to increase in many upstate areas and the Omicron variant gains a foothold.
The announcement set off a showdown between some local officials and Ms. Hochul, who has said previously that she does not plan to resort to the kind of strict restrictions that shut down much of New York’s economy last year.
While she has sought to give local governments more flexibility in responding to the pandemic compared with the tight reins her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, held, she has also warned that the state would intervene more forcefully if cases began to surge.
Almost immediately after Ms. Hochul’s announcement, a backlash began among elected Republican officials across the state, especially in counties north and west of New York City.
In Madison County, near Syracuse, the board of supervisors said local officials would not enforce the mandate, calling it the latest “disconnect that exists between Albany and our upstate counties.”
John M. Becker, a Republican and the board’s chairman, said officials would continue to recommend that residents get vaccinated and wear masks in public places “but in no way believe it should be mandated.”
Ms. Hochul, a native of the Buffalo area, appeared to understand that the new rules could face resistance, given the backlash that has greeted similar mandates on her home turf.
In Erie County, where Buffalo is, the county executive imposed a strict mask requirement in late November that covered all indoor public spaces. That mandate, which applied to anyone over the age of 2, prompted at least one protest and attracted opposition from some local officials, with some towns formally condemning the mandate.
The new rule does not permit businesses to allow a mix of unvaccinated people who are wearing masks and vaccinated people who are not, officials said. A grocery store owner would have to choose between requiring all customers to wear masks without proving they have been vaccinated or letting people in unmasked but only if they show they have been vaccinated.
Some people said the requirement would be a burden to businesses and would increase pressure on workers responsible for enforcement. Restaurant hosts, among others, have been attacked at restaurants from Upper Manhattan to Baton Rouge, La., for trying to enforce virus-related measures.
Justin Wilcox, the executive director of Upstate United, a business advocacy group, said he supported Ms. Hochul’s decision, noting that “a lot of places are already doing it.”
But he also said he was concerned about the health and safety of employees who might have to confront belligerent, unmasked customers at a time when many employers “are already having trouble finding enough workers.”
Dec. 10, 2021, 3:14 p.m. ET
Heather Bricetti, the president of the Business Council of New York State, a trade group, echoed those concerns.
“Our hope is people respect the state’s directive and employees of businesses by not putting them in the difficult position of having to enforce the mandate through confrontation,” she said in a statement.
Republicans who have been outspoken critics of mask mandates in New York and elsewhere were quicker to attack the governor.
Representative Elise Stefanik, a conservative Republican who represents much of the Adirondack region, called Ms. Hochul’s order “authoritarian” and suggested it would be “crushing” for small businesses.
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“Kathy Hochul is asking businesses to be responsible for checking the vaccine status for every individual, which is an untenable and outrageous request of our business community,” Ms. Stefanik said in a statement.
Opposition to the mandate also emerged in sections of the New York City suburbs, including Rockland County, where Ed Day, the county executive, expressed frustration over how the new rule had been rolled out.
Mr. Day, a Republican, said in a statement that members of Ms. Hochul’s staff had been “unable to provide detailed information about this newly announced requirement” at a briefing on Friday. County officials, he added, would “not enforce this requirement as it currently stands.”
Opposition to mask requirements has persisted in some quarters despite polls showing broad public support for such measures. A Siena College poll conducted in September found that more than 70 percent of state residents supported government-imposed mask mandates for indoor public facilities.
Although more than 80 percent of adults in New York State are fully vaccinated, the seven-day average of new cases has risen 43 percent since Thanksgiving and hospitalizations have increased 29 percent. More than 3,400 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 statewide on Thursday.
The increase in hospitalizations is a concern for state officials, who were already contending with a shortage of health care workers and a potential shortfall of hospital beds. On Monday, Ms. Hochul, who is seeking re-election, ordered more than 30 hospitals to halt nonessential elective procedures in hopes of easing the strain on those with limited capacity.
The current figures are far from what New York experienced last year as an epicenter of the pandemic, with nearly 60,000 residents killed by the virus and almost three million infected.
Weeks before he resigned in August and with 70 percent of adult New Yorkers having received at least one vaccine dose, Mr. Cuomo lifted most virus-related restrictions, including a requirement to wear masks in most settings. Still, unvaccinated people were supposed to continue to wear masks, and masks were still required in schools, public transit settings and homeless shelters, as well as in correctional and health care facilities.
Some businesses, noting that people are increasingly comfortable wearing masks, played down the new mandate’s potential impact on holiday shopping.
Stephen J. Congel, the chief executive of the Pyramid Management Group, which operates the Walden Galleria, western New York’s largest mall, said that foot traffic had risen steadily in recent months despite the surge in virus cases.
“Having dealt with Covid for nearly two years by now, many of our tenants and guests are quite used to donning masks,” he said. “So we don’t anticipate any significant changes in our guests’ behavior as a result of this new mandate.”
Mr. Wilcox, of the upstate business group, said the mandate was better than more extreme steps like those taken in the early days of the pandemic.
“The last thing that struggling businesses need is another shutdown,” he said.
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