New York COVID-19 Response

In a press release on Tuesday, December 14th, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that the State’s daily COVID positivity rate is 5.78% and the seven-day average positivity rate is 4.65%. There are 3,772 COVID hospitalizations statewide, 731 COVID patients in the ICU, 419 intubations, and 57 New Yorkers died from the virus on Monday, December 13th.

The Governor said that the current COVID rates in the State, which have risen dramatically over the past couple weeks are “an alarm going off,” adding “hospitalizations keep me up at night.” Governor Hochul has said that the areas with the highest hospitalization rates are also those with low vaccination rates. “You can draw a direct correlation between areas with low vaccination rates and high hospitalization rates. We want to make sure we are alerting people, and people have to take this very seriously. Increase in hospitalizations means fewer beds, and less access to critical services,” she said.

The rising COVID numbers and declining hospital capacity around the State have led to multiple counties issuing States of Emergency resulting in varying approaches to combatting the virus. Erie County was the first to issue a State of Emergency, resulting in a county-wide mask mandate requiring all individuals over the age of two to wear masks at all indoor public locations. Monroe County’s State of Emergency has implemented preventative measures such as requiring masks in all county buildings, reinstating a work-from-home policy for county employees, and providing 750,000 at-home test kits for residents.

Up until now, Governor Hochul had been hesitant to set any statewide mandates for businesses, choosing, instead, to let local governments decide what actions should be taken. However, on Friday, December 10th, the Governor announced a new statewide mandate for businesses to address the rising COVID numbers. “As Governor, my two top priorities are to protect the health of New Yorkers and to protect the health of our economy. The temporary measures I am taking today will help accomplish this through the holiday season. We shouldn’t have reached the point where we are confronted with a winter surge, especially with the vaccine at our disposal, and I share many New Yorkers’ frustration that we are not past this pandemic yet,” the Governor said. “I have warned for weeks that additional steps could be necessary, and now we are at that point based upon the metrics: Increasing cases, reduced hospital capacity, and insufficient vaccination rates in certain areas.”

Under the Governor’s new mandate, all businesses with be required to choose whether to implement a policy requiring all customers to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status or implement a policy requiring all customers provide proof of full vaccination. Businesses who choose to require proof of vaccination can accept Excelsior Pass, Excelsior Pass Plus, SMART Health Cards issues outside of New York State, or a CDC Vaccination Card. Also, under the mandate, “full vaccination” follows the CDC’s definition of “14-days past an individual’s last vaccination dose in their initial vaccine series (14-days past the second shot of a two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine; 14-days past the one-shot Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine).” Businesses who do not choose to require proof of full vaccination will need to require all customers to wear masks indoors. Also, under the mandate, masking requirements for unvaccinated individuals, pre-K to grade-12 schools, public transit, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, nursing homes, and health care settings will remain in effect. When answering questions about the new mandate today, the Governor said that there will be a $1,000 fine for businesses that do not comply and that enforcement will be left to local health departments. The State will reassess this new mandate on January 15, 2022.

The new mandate has been met with backlash, particularly in Republican-led counties, where leaders have said they will not enforce the Governor’s new rule. “As we educate & inform residents to take the necessary mitigation steps to protect themselves & those they love, we will not escalate tension or conflict or further burden our local small biz allocating resources we do not have to this impractical & unenforceable measure,” tweeted Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.

“The mask mandate is unenforceable. Unless you want to have police locking people (up) like they’re doing in Australia, it’s not enforceable,” said Rockland County Executive Ed Day. “Nobody wants to spend police resources doing that. So, they said out health departments are going to do this. And I said, ‘that is not going to happen.’ I have a health department right now who is doing a great job in immunizing people.” The counties that have stated they do not plan to comply with the mandate are Chautaqua, Dutchess, Genesee, Greene, Livingston, Madison, Niagara, Ontario, Orleans, Oswego, Putnam, Rensselaer, Rockland, Saratoga, Steuben, and Yates. Also, Nassau County Executive Elect Bruce Blakeman has said, once he takes office in January, he also plans to not enforce the mandate.

Governor Hochul defended her mandate, pointing to the current numbers, which show that overall COVID cases per 100,000 have increased 58%, and hospitalizations have increased 70% since Thanksgiving.” “This is a holiday surge,” the Governor said. “The objective is to protect the health of New Yorkers an protect the economy,” the Governor said, “it is a short-term effort. Given that we are in a different place now, we can deal with it, this has a deadline on it.”

While continuing to defend the vaccine, the Governor also expressed her frustration towards individuals who are refusing to get vaccinated. “Even though we have had 31 million shots in arms of New Yorkers, we still have 30% of New Yorkers who are not vaccinated. This is a crisis of the unvaccinated. This was preventable. If I sound a little frustrated, perhaps I am. This did not have to be case. The vaccine was introduced a year ago. If we have 100% vaccinated, we would not be here.”

Lastly, on Monday, December 13th, the United States Supreme Court turned away two emergency requests from New York health care workers, nurses and doctors, who sought to block the State’s health care worker vaccine mandate. The mandate, which is currently in effect, requires all health care workers to be vaccinated or lose their job, with only medical exemptions being recognized. In October, a federal court judge in Utica ruled that New York must allow religious exemptions for the vaccine, but that decision was overturned in November by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, one of the three judges to dissent yesterday, said he would have granted the two requests, saying the State leaves, “little doubt that the revised mandate was specifically directed at the applicants’ unorthodox religious beliefs and practices.” Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas also dissented.