Hochul will not enforce mandate amid county pushback

Courtesy of Gov. Kathy Hochul's office Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks during a more than hour-long briefing at her Manhattan office Monday about a $9.5 billion plan to revitalize John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens. She did not address the statewide COVID mandate for businesses that went into effect Monday until asked by reporters after the event.

NEW YORK — Gov. Kathy Hochul cast doubt Monday state officials will enforce her new order mandating New York businesses require patrons wear a face mask or show proof of vaccination as an increasing number of upstate counties indicate they will not ask businesses to comply, citing a lack of resources.

Acting State Health Department Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett issued a determination Friday to solidify the statewide requirement that staff and customers ages 2 and older in all New York businesses must wear face masks or show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus.

Officials in Greene, Genesee, Livingston, Orleans, Niagara, Madison, Rensselaer, Rockland and Saratoga counties — more than 10% of New York’s 62 counties — have announced they will not comply, or enforce businesses in their localities satisfy the order.

“While the commissioner’s determination leaves enforcement up to local health departments, we are confident that businesses and individuals will comply with these protocols in order to keep themselves and their communities safe,” state Health Department spokeswoman Jill Montag said in a statement Monday.

Several other counties say they can’t enforce the order, citing a lack of exhausted local health departments and resources as agencies race to vaccinate residents, perform COVID tests and contract tracing — necessities that aren’t letting up anytime soon.

Late last week, Hochul said businesses found not complying with the mandate will be fined $1,000, but cast doubt Monday that consequences would be enforced.

“We hope that counties will enforce it,” Gov. Hochul said to reporters Monday after an unrelated press conference in Queens. “We expect that they will — we hope that they will to the best interest of public health, but also comes down to individual businesses doing the right thing as well. We’re asking businesses to protect their customers ... and their employees.

“It’s a temporary measure as long as people follow it.”

Hochul held a lengthy briefing at Monday morning to announce a $.95 billion plan to revitalize the John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, including details of the construction phases.

She did not mention the new mandate that businesses must require patrons to wear face masks or show proof of vaccination against COVID-19, which took effect Monday. The measure will be reassessed Jan. 15.

The new mandate is a short-term, minor effort, Hochul said, compared to the complete lockdowns and remote school learning people endured through most of 2020. The governor is against additional lockdowns, urging all New Yorkers to get vaccinated or their booster doses to protect against the fatal virus.

Businesses in New York City will mandated customers show proof of vaccination starting Dec. 27.

“No one has to wear a mask — that’s their call,” the governor added of businesses that prefer requiring vaccinated patrons.

Hochul and her officials said they will continue to assess counties’ compliance, but brushed off questions about strict enforcement policies. She did not say counties that do not enforce the mandate will face repercussions.

“I’m going to monitor what’s going on in the various counties, but I’m not attempting to be heavy-handed,” she said, noting her close working relationship with the state Association of Counties.

Hochul called the association and spoke with county leaders before announcing the mandate.

“They did not give me pushback, they understood,” she said. “They just want to have this conversation.”

New York Association of Counties Deputy Director Mark LaVigne said each of the 62 counties have struggled to brave different sets of difficulties over the last 21 months.

“The counties have had their plates full — they have been on the front line of this pandemic since March,” LaVigne said. “Our local public health officials have been working around the clock for nearly two years to protect New Yorkers. They do not have the capacity for the most part to enforce this new state mandate.”

The association does not issue violations or impose consequences on counties, but the organization is not telling county officials they must comply with the governor's order.

“We believe counties will do what’s in the best interest of residents,” he said. “Our local public health departments are understaffed and fatigued after fighting this pandemic for nearly the past two years, so it’s a challenge for all of us. This is going to end up in the court of public opinion, and we hope the opinion is one of mutual respect to help curb the spread of COVID-19.”

Some government officials in upstate communities with low vaccination rates have requested Hochul impose a state mandate to help them enforce practices to slow community transmission of COVID-19 — especially with the prominent delta, and newly emerging omicron variants.

The majority of county leaders, including Jefferson County Legislature Chair Scott Gray and officials in Broome County, support the mandate, she said.

Counties continue to focus on vaccinating and performing COVID tests on their residents and completing contact tracing — exhausting their resources to protect public health, LaVigne said.

“There are serious capacity issues in some counties, and some counties insist this will be helpful to them,” LaVigne said. “They had serious capacity issues already before this mandate was put into place. Every county has a unique perspective and situation and they’re all having to focus on what is in the best interests of the residents and businesses of their communities with an eye toward public health and well-being.

“Their No. 1 goal has not deviated from their core responsibilities of encouraging vaccines, of building out a necessary testing infrastructure and continuing to contact trace,” he added.

Hochul and LaVigne agreed the stress over the mandate will not harm the improved working relationship between the Executive Chamber and county governments.

The state has ordered millions of testing kits and procured additional booster shots for local health departments, and will continue to, Hochul said.

“I believe there is a strong partnership where there has not been one in the past, and we’ll be there to provide the resources as they request them,” she added.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo was notorious for acting without consulting local officials. Hochul, a former elected Erie County official, continues to call county leaders for input.

“We will continue to act in concert with our partners at the state level to avoid another devastating shutdown of schools and the economy, and while there may not be an agreement on every decision, we appreciate the governor’s inclusive and collaborative approach at handling this latest surge,” LaVigne said. “There’s no reason to think that this partnership will not continue as it has been since she became governor.”

The new pandemic regulation is aimed to combat rising new virus cases and hospitalizations and prevent shuttering businesses during the holiday season and start of the winter as the state’s virus positivity rate increased to 4.63% and 4.61% over a seven-day average Saturday, but hovered at 5% Thursday.

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