Transit riders will no longer be required to wear masks on New York City subways, buses, and commuter rail lines, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday, bringing an end to one of the region’s last surviving mask mandates in public places.
The governor announced that masks are now optional on public transportation, although she says they're still "encouraged."
"We're adapting to the needs of all New Yorkers," Hochul said at a Harlem press conference, noting that the optional mask wearing goes into effect immediately.
Compliance with the face covering requirement had fallen sharply in recent months as transit authorities largely gave up on enforcing the rule. The last time the MTA conducted a rider masking survey in April, rates had fallen to 64% compliance — down from roughly 90% the previous year.
Masks will still be required in health care settings, including nursing homes, said Dr. Mary Bassett, the state's health commissioner.
The mandate was first announced in April 2020 as New York was in the throes of the pandemic via an executive order by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It remained in place for the MTA – which oversees the city's subways and buses, as well as the Metro North and Long Island Rail Road – even as other transit agencies have moved to make masks optional for riders.
In April, after a federal judge tossed the national mask mandate for mass transit, NJ Transit and Amtrak dropped their requirements, prompting confusion among commuters who were unsure which rules applied.
The Transportation Security Administration also announced at the time it would no longer enforce the mandate in airports or planes, though the Port Authority kept a requirement for JFK and LaGuardia Airports.
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said the differing rules between agencies and the lack of enforcement on subways and buses had only bred distrust and uncertainty among riders.
"At the same time the police and MTA were saying it's important to follow all rules of conduct, [they] were not enforcing a glaring, in-your-face rule," Daglian said. "Without clear direction there was confusion and that led to complacency among riders."
The end of New York’s mass transit mask mandate comes as Hochul and the federal government have eased other COVID requirements, including the rules around masking and isolation for public school students.
The state health department is also lifting the mask mandates for jails, prisons, and domestic violence shelters.
Subway riders had mixed feelings about Hochul's announcement, although many at the Union Square subway station told Gothamist it made no difference given the lax enforcement.
"It's fine, it doesn't really make a difference," said Tony Oppfer, a student. "People who are going to wear one are going to wear one, and people who don't want to wear them haven't been wearing them."
Lara Lane, a tourist visiting from California, said she was surprised to find so many bare-faced transit riders waiting while riding around the city.
“I generally think of New Yorkers as the smartest people in the country,” she said. “I’d expect they’d be careful, with everyone living so close together.”
Still, others said they were comfortable with the policy change, even if they might continue to mask up for their own personal reasons.
“I just do it whenever I feel like I have an ugly day now,” said Abi Fraser. “Plus people are nasty, they do disgusting things every now and then.”