New York’s mask mandate is in jeopardy. Here’s what could happen next

By Clint Rainey

A Long Island judge on Monday declawed New York State’s mask mandate, arguing the state doesn’t have the legal authority to enact it. Mask mandates have been in effect statewide, off and on, since April 2020. The most recent version, announced by Governor Kathy Hochul on December 10 amid the omicron surge, required masks or proof of vaccination at all New York indoor venues. It was set to expire on January 15, but on New Year’s Eve the state extended it for another two weeks, until February 1.

In his decision last night, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademaker wrote that New York lacked the power to enact a mandate like this without approval from the state legislature, meaning the mandate violated New York’s constitution.

Hochul responded almost instantly, saying in a statement that she strongly disagreed with Rademaker’s ruling and would be “pursuing every option to reverse this immediately.” She added: “My responsibility as governor is to protect New Yorkers throughout this public health crisis, and these measures help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.”

On Monday morning, New York State attorney general Letitia James said that her office was already preparing an appeal:

Rademaker noted that his decision addressed only whether the mandate “was properly enacted and if so whether [it] can be enforced”—not if there should be one. “To be clear, this Court does not intend this decision in any way to question or otherwise opine on the efficacy, need, or requirement of masks as a means or tool in dealing with the COVID-19 virus,” he wrote.

The decision ends the mask mandate statewide for schools and public places, which was issued directly by the state, but it does not affect rules passed by local cities and counties. For instance, New York City’s schools aren’t affected, a point Mayor Eric Adams already stressed today.

But this may mark the beginning of a more acrimonious fight between state officials and local school boards. Despite the ruling, the New York State Education Department has said that schools statewide “must continue to follow the mask rule.” According to CNN, the department circulated a statement last night saying that it’s operating under the assumption that the state’s appeal should “result in an automatic stay that will unambiguously restore the mask rule until such time as an appellate court issues a further ruling.”

And yet this morning, several school districts already started making masks optional. The Massapequa Board of Education on Long Island, which had asked Hochul in December to end the mandate, wasted no time posting a statement that said: “Until otherwise litigated, mask wearing will be optional for students and staff in the Massapequa Schools beginning Tuesday.” Nearby Lindenhurst school district, which nearly sued Hochul over the mandate, issued a very similarly worded message on Facebook last night: “Until otherwise directed, the wearing of masks will be optional for all students and staff members.”

Unsurprisingly, some New York Republicans quickly applauded the ruling, perhaps hoping that it’s an omen for how legal challenges to mask mandates elsewhere will go. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a favorite of President Trump’s, called it “a win for small businesses, parents, students, and the freedom of all New Yorkers,” arguing the mandate was “crushing New York small businesses” and that “by forcing masks on the children in our schools, these mandates have impeded the development of our next generation.”

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