Masks or vaccines mandated in NY businesses

Courtesy of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office Gov. Kathy Hochul gives a COVID-19 briefing in her Manhattan office Dec. 2 with state Health Department Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett. On Friday, following a determination by Bassett, Hochul announced that masks must be worn in all New York indoor public spaces unless a business or establishment has a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for patrons.

NEW YORK — Gov. Kathy Hochul will not implement new statewide COVID-19 mandates after health officials Thursday confirmed five New Yorkers have contracted the omicron variant.

Four New York City residents and one person in Suffolk County tested positive for the omicron variant of COVID-19 — originally discovered in South Africa on Nov. 24.

Gov. Hochul urged calm during a joint briefing with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio about the spreading variant Thursday night, adding the state will not implement regional shutdowns or mandates at this time.

“This is not a cause for major alarm,” Hochul said. “I need to say that because we do not have enough information. We’re not having shutdowns — we’re not changing our protocols. We are continuing where we are, but working on concert together.”

The 67-year-old Suffolk County resident recently traveled to South Africa and is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. The vaccination statuses of the four New York City residents are unknown, Hochul said.

The governor urged all New Yorkers to wear a mask in all public places, especially indoors, and to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or a booster dose if over age 18 and vaccinated at least six months ago.

A Minnesota man who recently visited New York City was the second case of the omicron variant identified in the U.S. on Thursday morning.

The unidentified Minneapolis man, who is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, felt mild flu-like symptoms after returning home from the Anime NYC 2021 convention at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan that ended Nov. 21.

“It’s not unexpected,” Hochul said Thursday during an 11 a.m. COVID-19 briefing in Manhattan. “This is not cause for alarm. It was foreseen ever since it was first reported out of South Africa that we knew it would come to New York state at some point.

“I don’t want anyone to panic over this.”

Hochul’s office and top Health Department leaders communicated with New York City and Javits Center officials about the potential community transmission of the omicron variant.

The infected Minneapolis man likely contracted omicron in New York, the governor said.

Hochul and de Blasio directed any person who attended the Anime NYC conference to immediately get a COVID-19 test and take additional precautions.

Hochul is taking a different approach to combatting COVID-19 than her predecessor, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo with less frequent public coronavirus updates and working in closer collaboration with local governments and health departments, letting localities set their own regulations and enforcement rules.

“We are not defenseless against this variant and I want everyone to know to have the confidence that we can handle this,” she said. “We’re ready for it. It is the fourth variant to arise.”

Hochul does not hold the executive authority to implement a statewide mask requirement like Cuomo, who had expanded authority from March 2020 through late this past June.

Statewide mandates could return, Hochul said, but would not name a specific COVID infection threshold or indicator when stricter regulations would return.

Hochul signed an executive order on Black Friday mandating elective surgeries be suspended in hospitals with fewer than 10% staffed bed capacity. The statewide COVID vaccine mandate for health workers also remains in effect, but is where the governor’s statewide pandemic reign ends — for now.

Shutdowns of businesses or school districts are not on the table for the state as of Thursday. Hochul visited the White House and with the state’s congressional delegation Wednesday about the national COVID winter plan President Joe Biden announced Thursday to reduce community spread.

“We’ve been ready or prepared, we’re not sounding the alarms, we’re not overreacting to this, but I want New Yorkers to have the confidence to know that we are ready to deal with this,” Hochul said. “...We don’t need that one-size-fits-all approach, but I’m prepared to make everything statewide if necessary.”

The governor held two separate COVID-19 updates Thursday, totaling three so far this week — Hochul’s first week to hold multiple pandemic updates since she took office Aug. 24.

The increased frequency of COVID briefings is expected with the emergence of the omicron variant and spiking new infections, especially in upstate communities with lower vaccination rates.

The state’s daily COVID infection rate is 4.83%, and 4.61% over a seven-day average, according to the governor’s office Thursday.

New Yorkers hospitalized with virus complications increased 71 patients overnight to 3,093 people statewide.

Forty-nine New Yorkers died from the virus Wednesday — a number that has continued to steadily increase since single-digit daily fatalities this summer.

COVID-19 transmission is expected to keep climbing, and remain elevated, through the upcoming holiday and winter seasons.

In early November, the U.S. eased travel rules allowing fully vaccinated travelers of any nationality, including South Africa, to enter the U.S. if they test negative for COVID-19.

Since omicron was identified, the White House reversed course and barred most foreign travelers who have recently been in southern Africa.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention said Thursday it has prepared well for omicron and any future variants of COVID-19.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said U.S. health officials have greatly expanded their capacity to do the genomic sequencing tests that pinpoint new variants, an area in which the U.S. had lagged other nations.

Omicron is already global with cases identified in several new countries daily.

Cases in South Africa, where omicron was first detected last week, have doubled every day this week and are up nearly 600% since last week.

At least 90.9% of New Yorkers ages 18 and older have received at least one COVID vaccine dose as of Monday.

Tribune News Service contribued to this report.

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