By Amanda Olsen
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) administration has allowed the mask-or-vaccinate mandate for public spaces to lapse as of Feb. 10, effectively leaving masking decisions to local officials and business owners. Masks are still required in health care facilities, on public transportation, in correctional facilities and in shelters. Masks are also still required in schools for the time being, with a reevaluation planned some time in early March, after the winter break.
Leaders in health care, business and labor fields were generally supportive of Hochul’s decision. Gary LaBarbera, president of Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said in a statement. “The mask mandate has helped keep New York’s working men and women safe and healthy during the most uncertain and volatile moments of the public health crisis. The easing of indoor mask mandates for businesses is a positive sign in New York’s recovery, as it’s a direct result of COVID-19 cases dropping across the state and, hopefully, the pandemic itself receding.”
New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in a statement. “In light of the announcement today, we thank the governor for ensuring employers still have responsibilities under state statute, including the Public Employee Safety and Health Act and the New York HERO Act, which remain in effect. These laws establish safety protocols to protect workers and the public. Moving forward, in the absence of the mask mandate, employers must continue to work with their employees to make sure appropriate protections are in place.”
On the local level, some people are comfortable leaving masking up to the individual, including Anthony Bongiovanni, of Rocky Point Jewelers.
“If you feel for your personal safety, you should wear one, by all means,” he said.
However, not every business is ready to leave masks behind. Richard Smith, from Buttercup’s Dairy Store in Port Jefferson Station, is keeping some masking rules in place. “We’re still requiring employees to wear masks. We don’t require customers [to do so].”
Others are continuing to follow federal guidelines, regardless of what is happening at the state level. Paul Vigliante, of Branch Funeral Homes in Miller Place and Smithtown, said that he intends to follow “whatever the CDC guidelines are” at the time.
Some business owners expressed mixed feelings about leaving masking up to the individual, since policing customer behavior has been challenging even with the mandate in place. Smith said that they have “had to call the police a couple of times” but overall “95% of people have been respectful.”
Not all businesses had difficulty. Bongiovanni said, “There was never a problem.” Vigliante also had no issues: “Everyone was very respectful … we were very fortunate throughout.”
Each new phase of the COVID pandemic brings its own set of challenges for both business owners and individuals. Everyone is feeling some degree of pandemic weariness.
“Everybody’s sick of it,” Smith said. “Just a lot of frustration.”