School Requirement Remains in Effect
Westchester County removed its mask requirement for entry into most county buildings on Monday as statewide COVID-19 infection levels have fallen to their lowest points in more than three months.
County Executive George Latimer announced the change as active cases in Westchester declined to just over 2,000 as of Sunday, a more than 90 percent drop from the Omicron variant high of about 36,000 five weeks ago.
Hospitalizations continue to nosedive as well, down to 180, nearly 500 less than a month ago.
“We’re not ideologically committed to a strategy,” Latimer said. “We look and see if what we’re doing is working and if we don’t need these mandates, then we lift these restrictions. At this stage of the game, in terms of the mandate that we put in place for county office buildings, our policies worked. There was no spread of cases of COVID that we were concerned about (among) our workforce.”
Latimer’s decision came five days after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced last Wednesday that she lifted the local mask mandate for businesses effective Feb. 10.
However, she continued the mask mandate for schools at least until the first week in March. Public health officials will re-evaluate after most districts return from the Presidents’ week break on Feb. 28.
Hochul said she will leave it up to individual businesses and local and county governments whether they want to continue having a more stringent policy.
“I’m looking at data, looking at trends, looking at everything that’s out there but I also want to deal in the reality that we have a very good picture that has been painted over the last few weeks as we are approaching the expiration date for this emergency measure that’s been in place for literally two months,” Hochul explained.
Despite sharp declines in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in recent weeks, the governor said that masks will still be mandated for the time being in certain settings, including schools. It remains in effect for all state regulated health care facilities, nursing homes, correctional facilities, child care centers, homeless and domestic violence shelters and mass transportation.
On Sunday, the statewide infection rate was 2.96 percent, the fourth consecutive day the infection rate was under 3 percent. There were just 2,348 new positive cases on Sunday, the lowest level since Oct. 25. On Jan. 7, there were 90,000 new cases statewide, the peak of the Omicron variant.
The governor put the mask mandate in effect on Dec. 13.
Hochul said that she spoke with education leaders across the state last week and held off making a decision until the first week in March because many families use next week off from school to travel.
Each student and staff member will receive COVID-19 test kits so they can test themselves the day they return and again three days later. A determination may be made on Friday, Mar. 4 about whether the requirement will remain in schools, Hochul said.
She mentioned that there’s “a very strong possibility” it could be lifted for the following week or soon after.
“These children, students sit together all day long in close proximity to each other, they go to lunch together, they’re involved in gym together, whereas in the workplace people have the ability for movement,” Hochul said of the difference between requirements for schools and businesses. “Kids are in a very restricted setting, and also adults can make their own decisions. Children need adults to look out for their health. This is all about safety and the health of our children.”
Last week, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced the mask requirement will end for schools in his state on Feb. 28, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is discontinuing the same mandate a week later.
Hochul said her directive is in the same time frame but will also take in additional data such as pediatric cases, vaccination rates among school-age children and global trends to help guide her administration.
Groups of parents in districts throughout the area and across the state have been pressuring school officials to relax mask mandates. However, Hochul said Wednesday that unlike other areas of the country that needed to return to remote around the holidays, that was nearly avoided entirely in New York.
“We decided the safest way for the students, the teachers, the administrators and everyone who is part of the school is to have a mask requirement,” Hochul said.
Martin has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been editor-in-chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007. Read more from Martin’s editor-author bio here. Read Martin’s archived work here: https://www.theexaminernews.com/author/martin-wilbur2007/