Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said Wednesday that she did not anticipate schoolchildren would need to wear masks when they return to school in September, but that she was keeping the statewide mask mandate on public transportation for now.
“We are trying very hard to encourage people to come back to work, use the subways, but they have to feel safe and secure,” she said of her choice to continue the mandate on trains, buses and other public transportation. “So we are going to continue to monitor it, but the numbers will have to be lower than they are right now and consistently lower” to lift it.
As coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths in the state tick up as a result of the rapidly spreading Omicron subvariant known as BA.5, Ms. Hochul held her first Covid briefing in months. She tried simultaneously to reassure the public that Covid levels are manageable for the moment and do not require a change of course, and to make the case that she needed to extend her pandemic emergency powers into the fall in case serious disease and hospitalizations spike higher.
Ms. Hochul has come under some criticism in recent days for continuing to declare each month that New York is facing a state of emergency because of the pandemic. The declaration allows her to issue mandates and spend tax dollars without full legislative oversight. She appeared to call the briefing in part to argue that she still needed that authority, as well as to share information about the state’s monkeypox response, which dominated the first half of the event.
On Covid, she said she had hoped the pandemic would be over by now, but “it is becoming clear to me it isn’t gone.” As a result, her office needs to stay nimble, she said.
“We have staffing contracts we are going to keep in place that we can reactivate people with five days notice,” she said. “We’re not ceding that flexibility as long as we’re still in this environment.”
Ms. Hochul concentrated her remarks on preparing for a possible fall and winter surge. For the fall, she said the state was focused on getting millions of rapid tests to schools so they could have children test before the first day of classes. She is also making sure the state has a 60-day stockpile of masks and other personal protective equipment. She urged people to get booster shots if they had not yet had them and were eligible, and publicized a state hotline that can help people with Covid get treatment.
She also discussed her administration’s plan to look back and learn from the first years of the state’s Covid-19 response. She said she was seeking independent contractors to produce a wide-ranging “pandemic after-action review” that would analyze all aspects of the response, including a fraught decision by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to transfer stable coronavirus patients from hospitals into nursing homes during the first wave.
Virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been rising in New York State over the past month, but remain well below the levels seen in January during the first wave of Omicron. One reason is that most testing now happens at home and is not recorded, but also, vaccines and immunity from past infections are helping protect against severe cases, even as people are getting reinfected.
Neither the government nor most of the public seem inclined to get into high alert mode for this sixth wave of cases, reflecting a growing sense in New York City and beyond that it is time to learn to live with the pandemic without much change in behavior. Some people, however, still want heightened precautions, particularly to protect those more vulnerable to serious infection.
As of July 18, there were 2,628 people hospitalized with Covid-19 in the state, about 1,300 of whom were in New York City, according to state data. About 20 people a day have died from the virus over the past week. At the height of the first Omicron surge, there were more than 12,000 people hospitalized statewide, about 6,500 of them in New York City, and about 230 people a day died. And during the first wave, nearly 19,000 people were hospitalized statewide at the peak, with nearly 1,000 daily deaths.