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New York state lifts indoor mask mandate as surge in omicron cases subsides

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A person wearing a face mask leaves a store on January 26, 2022 in New York City.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

New York is dropping its strict indoor mask mandate as the surge in Covid-19 cases as cases and hospitalizations continue to fall in all regions, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday.

Hochul doesn’t plan to renew the health measure, which expires Thursday. It has required businesses to ensure customers were fully vaccinated or wear masks indoors at all times. It marks a turning point in the state’s response to the pandemic as the prolonged safety protocols has left the public weary and provoked legal challenges and protests.

“Positivity rates down and hospitalizations are down, cases per 100,000 (people) are down and new admissions are down,” Hochul said at a press conference. “So New Yorkers, this is what we’ve waiting for –tremendous progress after two long years.

“We’re not done. But this is trending in a very, very good direction, and that is why we are now approaching a new phase in this pandemic,” she said.

The move likely won’t affect places that have federal mask requirements, such public transportation and airplanes, or public schools, she said. Localities may also continue to require masks in certain settings.

Hochul said state officials also haven’t yet decided whether to lift the mask mandate in K-12 schools. Health officials will continue to monitor the outbreak across the state and make a decision the first week of March, after kids return from the winter break. The state is working on a blueprint of Covid safety protocols to handle outbreaks in the future, she said.

“We’re not surrendering. This is not disarmament. We’re going to continue to be adaptable and responsive to the changing circumstances,” she said. “But again, the trends are very, very, very positive.”

The decision comes as the winter surge due to the omicron Covid-19 variant finally starts to ease from its winter peak.

The state is reporting a seven-day average of about 7,000 new cases per day, down from a pandemic high of 85,000 on Jan. 9, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Roughly 6,100 New Yorkers are currently in the hospital with Covid, down 25% over the past week and about half of the most recent peak level in mid-January, according to a seven-day average of data from the Dept. of Health and Human Services.

That same trend is visible in New York City, once the epicenter of the pandemic and the most recent omicron wave in the U.S. Average daily cases peaked there at nearly 41,000 per day in early January, but have since fallen to about 2,400 per day as of Monday, state data shows. Hospitalizations in the city recently topped 6,500 on Jan. 11, but are now at roughly a third of that level.

New York’s daily Covid death toll is elevated but also easing. While state case counts during the omicron wave soared to nearly five times that of last winter’s peak level, average daily deaths surpassed the record from that period by about 15%, reaching 229 per day on Jan. 23 and now at a daily average of 136, Hopkins data shows.

“We’ve always said these decisions will have to be made at the local level,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters at a separate press briefing Tuesday. “They have to be done at the local level, but I’m really encouraged cases are continuing to drop dramatically.”

Wednesday’s announcement makes New York the latest Democrat-led state to pull back some of its mandates.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this week announced that students and school employees would no longer need to wear face coverings. That set off a wave of other state officials saying they would end some pandemic measures.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would let some of the state’s mask measures expire. Officials in Connecticut, Delaware and Oregon also said they would withdraw some mask measures.

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