Mask mandate in schools to remain for now; COVID-19 cases continue to decline in Suffolk

The statewide mask mandate for schools will remain in effect for at least another month.

In a motion issued Monday by New York State’s Appellate Division, Second Department, the mandate will remain in effect pending a hearing and determination of an appeal “on or before March 2, 2022.” The latest development in the court battle to determine the legality of the mandate issued prior to the start of the school year to limit spread of COVID-19 means students and staff will continue to wear masks for the foreseeable future.

On Jan. 24, Judge Thomas Rademaker of the Nassau County Supreme Court said the mask mandate for schools was enacted unlawfully and in violation of the New York State Constitution. An appeals court judge sided with New York State the next day, reinstating the mandate until the appeals process could continue in the Appellate Court. The lawsuit challenging the mandate was filed by a group of parents in Nassau County against the New York State Department of Health, the state health commissioner and Gov. Kathy Hochul.

“Mask regulations keep our schools and businesses safe and open, protect vulnerable New Yorkers and are critical tools as we work to get through this winter surge,” Ms. Hochul said in a statement in response to the Appellate Court’s motion.

New York Attorney General Letitia James filed the appeal and thanked the Appellate Court’s decision in a statement Monday evening.

“Wearing a mask saves lives,” she said. “The mask mandate and today’s decision will help in our efforts to fight back this virus. My office will continue to use its full authority to keep New Yorkers safe.”

At a rally at the State Capitol in Albany Monday, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) criticized the state policy as harmful for children, said it should be a parent’s choice whether their children wear a mask and mocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which continues to recommend universal indoor masking at K-12 schools. Mr. Zeldin, who is campaigning to be elected governor as a Republican, said he would end all COVID mandates on his first day in office if elected.

“There’s no generation more desperate to return to normalcy than our kids,” he said.

Mr. Zeldin said the Nassau County judge’s ruling was correct, in his opinion, and he believes the statewide mandate is unconstitutional.

He said the state mandate requires masks in schools, even though the “CDC is recommending against wearing those [cloth] masks.”

The CDC has said various types of masks provide different levels of protection. A loosely woven cloth product provides the least protection. Well-fitting disposable surgical masks and KN95s offer more protection. The N95 masks provide highest level of protection.

“It is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask,” the CDC says in its most recent guidance.

On Friday, Ms. Hochul announced the mask or vaccine requirement for businesses would be extended through Feb. 10 and will be re-evaluated every two weeks.

“So we can be ready to suspend, give businesses the notice they’ve been waiting for,” Ms. Hochul said. “But again, I want to thank all the businesses and the people who follow these policies.”

The numbers of cases and hospitalizations in Suffolk County continue to trend downward after reaching a peak in early January. There was an average of 793 cases per day in Suffolk during the week from Jan. 24-30. There were 210 cases recorded Sunday, the lowest single day total since Nov. 1. The positivity rate on a seven-day average now stands at 8.3%.

There were 521 people hospitalized as of Sunday in Suffolk. Long Island has seen a 39.4% reduction in hospital admissions in the last seven days.

The statewide positivity rate is now at 5.92% on a seven-day average, the governor said Tuesday during a COVID briefing.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced Tuesday that the county is opening additional community-based vaccination and booster clinics across the county, including one in Riverhead. Other locations will be in Hauppauge, Bay Shore, Mastic and West Babylon. The earliest current date for Riverhead is Feb. 23 at the Riverhead Free Library from 1-5 p.m.

Additional information on scheduling appointments can be found at Mr. Bellone said residents can also call 311. Walk-ins will be accepted.

“The data, the science is clear, the best way to protect yourself, to protect your family, is having that protection [the vaccine offers],” he said.

Mr. Bellone said as the omicron wave is receding, more clarity is needed on the metrics and guidelines that need to be hit to allow a transition to a “more normal environment.”

“How do we transition to living with the virus?” he asked.

Mr. Bellone added that he plans to send a letter to the State Department of Health seeking guidance.

March will mark the second anniversary of the first case identified in Suffolk and the start of a third year living with COVID-19.

“The most important thing as the omicron surge recedes is that we have that conversation and we get to the public and school officials clear guidance moving forward of how and when this transition should happen,” he said.

Getting as many people vaccinated as possible remains the big key, Mr. Bellone said.