Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday that New York State would drop its stringent mask-or-vaccine mandate, which required businesses to demand proof of full vaccination or mask-wearing at all times in indoor public spaces.
The mandate, which Ms. Hochul implemented on Dec. 10 during the surge driven by the Omicron variant, will officially expire on Thursday.
“It was an emergency temporary measure put in place only two months ago,” she said on Wednesday. “At this time, we say that is the right decision to lift this mandate for indoor businesses and let counties, cities and businesses make their own decisions on what they want to do with respect to masks or the vaccination requirement.”
She added: “Numbers are coming down, and it is time to adapt.”
The state’s indoor mask mandate had been challenged in court and had drawn political backlash from conservative parts of the state where vaccinations are lagging and masks are not as commonly worn.
The lifting of the mandate means that in certain parts of the state, businesses and indoor venues, such as restaurants, malls and retail stores, as well as workplaces, will no longer have to enforce mask wearing or ask for vaccination status. Businesses, however, will still have the option of requiring masks or vaccination from their patrons or employees if they would like to.
The expiration of the mandate won’t affect a separate state requirement that masks be worn in school and that has become contentious, sparking debates among parents, teachers and children as people increasingly tire of pandemic-era restrictions.
Ms. Hochul said that officials would determine whether to keep the schools mandate in place in early March, after students return from midwinter break, during which many of them may travel.
The delay will enable the state to scrutinize case numbers in schools and distribute Covid test kits to parents, Ms. Hochul said.
She said that the approach she was taking was “not reactive,” describing it instead as “thoughtful and based on everything we’ve been doing since day one — and we’ve done it successfully.”
Ms. Hochul’s decision also won’t supersede virus-related policies enacted by towns, counties and cities. It won’t affect, for example, New York City’s policy of requiring proof of full vaccination to eat in restaurants, exercise in a gym or watch a movie at a theater. The continuation of those city-level measures would be up to Mayor Eric Adams.
While New York City does not have a citywide universal mask mandate, masks are required on mass transit, and in health care, congregate care and child care settings. Unvaccinated people must wear masks whenever they are in a public space, according to city regulations. Many businesses, including most theaters, require masks, too.
“We are continuing to follow the science and the guidance of public health professionals to keep New Yorkers safe,” Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor, said Wednesday. “We encourage all New Yorkers to continue to wear high-quality masks when indoors or in crowded spaces and to get vaccinated and boosted to stop the spread.”
But lifting the statewide mask mandate could play a major role in attracting workers back to empty offices that had to pause their return-to-work plans because of the winter surge. Since then, hospitalizations have steadily declined and bed capacity has stabilized in hospitals, while the positivity rate of new cases has dropped to about 4 percent, down from a peak of 23 percent just a month ago.
Other states led by Democratic governors, including New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware, recently moved to ease rules around mask-wearing in schools, weary of changing voter attitudes around restrictions nearly two years into the pandemic.
But the indoor mask mandate in New York was among the most restrictive in the nation, even though state officials have yet to weigh on the school-masks mandate, which is evolving into an even thornier political conundrum for Ms. Hochul, a Democrat seeking a full term as governor this year.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday that “now is not the moment” to drop mask mandates in schools and other public spaces, even as states have rushed to do so.
The agency says masks are not necessary outside if you are by yourself or with members of the same household, but it still encourages masks and social distancing indoors, especially when interacting with people outside your household.
Sharon Otterman contributed reporting.