New York Gov. Kathy Hochul had a plan.
It was early February and COVID cases were on a sharp decline. One by one, neighboring states were pulling back school mask mandates, ratcheting up the pressure for her to act.
So Hochul laid out her strategy: Students would get at-home test kits before winter recess began February 21. They would take the tests before coming back Feb. 28 and again three days later. After that, the state would assess whether there was a post-recess COVID spike before deciding whether to ditch indoor masks for students, educators and anyone else visiting a school.
“After we have had kids tested, we are going to make an assessment that first week in March,” Hochul said February 9.
It took less than three weeks for Hochul to scrap those plans.
On Sunday, Hochul announced she would be dropping the statewide mask mandate for pre-K through 12 schools effective Wednesday – the day students were supposed to be taking their second COVID test for the state’s analysis.
Hochul’s abrupt decision to drop her initial strategy – coming on the eve of the state GOP convention – emerged amid relentless pressure from her critics and the portion of parents left angered that their young children were being required to mask up. But it was the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new, relaxed masking guidelines, announced Friday, that gave Hochul the impetus to act.
“Our vaccination rates are going up, as well as our hospitalizations are down and then the CDC came out on Friday and gave their recommendations,” Hochul said Monday on PIX11 News. “So we analyzed the data, we listened to the CDC and we determined that now is the time.”
But the CDC’s policy doesn’t call for the full removal of masks in all places — rather it says the decision should be based on a mixture of hospital capacity, case rates and daily hospitalizations for a particular county. The guidelines now define a county’s risk as low, medium or high. Universal indoor masking is recommended in counties with high risk, while vulnerable residents in places with medium risk are called upon to consult their doctors before demasking.
As of Friday, 11 counties — about 17% of the state – were labeled high risk, but none of those places were in the New York City area. The CDC guidelines also call for masks to return if COVID metrics worsen, and the governor hasn’t said if she is following this guidance.
Hochul’s decision to drop the statewide school mask mandate a few days earlier than anticipated also left the decision to local officials to decide whether to still keep masking in place for schools. In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams said his administration would drop the school mandate on Monday, March 7, barring any unforeseen spikes before then.
The Democratic governor’s political opponents hailed it as a victory, the result of public pressure on Hochul that became too much to ignore.
“Finally, Kathy Hochul has succumbed to the pressure of millions of parents, teachers and New Yorkers fighting to unmask our kids,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Long Island Republican who is expected to get the state Republican Committee’s nod to run for governor at the party’s convention on Tuesday.
Hochul first hinted that a change in strategy may be coming late Friday, a few hours after the CDC announced its new advice.
“We are evaluating the CDC's new guidance, and we will update New Yorkers on potential changes as we work through the details and coordinate with all stakeholders in our school communities across our state,” Hochul said in a statement late Friday.
The CDC’s announcement spurred another round of communication between Hochul’s administration and the state’s various education groups, including school superintendents who had been pushing for clearer metrics for rescinding the mandate and the New York State United Teachers union (NYSUT), a powerful Albany force that had supported a mask mandate for much of the pandemic.
After Hochul announced her decision Sunday, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta signaled the union was on board.
“We welcome this step toward normalcy,” he said in a statement. “The governor is striking the right balance by empowering local officials to use data to determine if and when the mitigation strategies need to change in their areas.”
Pallotta continued: “As the guidance changes, one thing must remain constant: It’s essential that districts work closely with educators to ensure there is confidence in their health and safety plans.”
Legislative Republicans hailed Hochul’s decision but said it was weeks overdue.
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, an Oswego County Republican, said the state will “always do better when common sense dictates policy and decision making, rather than politics.”
“While unnecessarily delayed, this decision is a positive development in our road back to normalcy, and I look forward to the end of mandates as New York continues to move forward,” he said in a statement.