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Governor urges local governments to follow CDC guidance on masks, but no mandate coming from state

Any future mask mandates to protect against the spread of COVID-19 appear to be in the hands of local governments.

Six days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended vaccinated people resume wearing masks indoors in public settings due to the highly transmissible Delta variant, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday said local governments should follow that updated guidance.

But there won’t be any state mandate as had previously been in effect during the early stages of the pandemic.

Mr. Cuomo said the state law that allowed New York to override local governments and set a mask mandate has since expired.

“The law is as set by the local government and we are just recommending,” Mr. Cuomo said. “If you get to a situation where local governments don’t step up, don’t do the right thing, you see the numbers rise, then you’d need the state to pass a law.”

The state disaster emergency declared on March 7, 2020 expired on June 24, at which point the statewide positivity rate had been declining for 79 consecutive days down to a record low of 0.36%. It has now jumped back up to 2.68%.

Suffolk County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday on whether any mask mandate has been discussed at the county level. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio “strongly” urged New Yorkers to wear masks indoors but did not yet issue a mandate, the New York Times reported Monday.

Suffolk County remains listed as “substantial” risk in the CDC’s four-tiered system for monitoring COVID. The latest mask recommendation in indoor, public settings was for areas in either substantial or high risk of community transmission. More than a dozen additional upstate counties have reached substantial risk in the last week since the CDC’s announcement as cases of the virus continue to steadily climb. The change in CDC guidance was largely attributed to evidence that vaccinated people could potentially spread the Delta variant.

“Local governments, you should adopt that CDC mask guidance,” the governor said, adding that local governments should show leadership. “Learn the lesson from last year. Don’t deny reality. Better safe than sorry.”

In terms of vaccinations, the governor said he believes school districts should require teachers to be vaccinated or tested in areas with high or substantial risk levels. But that would have to be done on an individual school district level, rather than as a directive from the state.

The governor urged school districts to set a policy now.

“If you don’t set a policy today, you’re going to have chaos when school opens,” he said. “Because it’ll be impossible for a teacher to get two shots done.”

There was no discussion of mandatory vaccines for children to attend schools during Monday’s briefing. The vaccine is currently only approved for children ages 12 and over.

During the governor’s media briefing, he said MTA and Port Authority employees working in New York facilities will be required to get vaccinated or be tested weekly starting Labor Day. He had previously announced state employees and patient-facing employees in state-run hospitals would face the same requirement.

The governor said those requirements are being set by the employer, which is allowed under the law. When the vaccine receives final FDA approval beyond the current emergency use authorization, the State Legislature could mandate further vaccines, such as for teachers.

“But that is going to be a very politically contentious situation,” Mr. Cuomo said. “And it depends on what the Legislature would do.”

New York State United Teacher, a statewide union with more than 600,000 members, released a statement Monday saying it does not support a vaccine mandate, but it does “support local efforts to encourage more vaccinations, such as through programs that require that those who are not vaccinated get tested on a regular basis.” The statement added that “it’s critical that districts come up with plans to make testing available on-site and at no cost.”

Mr. Cuomo gave an overview to the latest stats on COVID-19 and noted how the number of patients hospitalized in the state has doubled since July 1 from 349 to 788. The number of cases has increased from 506 to 2,143.

Vaccination remains the biggest key. Vaccinated people are still less likely to catch the virus and significantly less likely to require hospitalization.

During the week of July 19, the rate of hospitalization in New York was .19 per 100,000 among fully vaccinated residents. That rate jumped to 1.25 per 100,000 among unvaccinated.

“If you are unvaccinated, delta variant should be a major concern to you and you should be worried about,” he said.

The positivity rate in Suffolk County now stands at 3% on a seven-day average. There were 230 new cases reported on Saturday. There are 47 patients in Suffolk hospitals with COVID-19, an increase of six compared to one month ago on July 1.