Masks still required on public transit despite federal court ruling

ALBANY – Governor Kathy Hochul said Wednesday that masks are still required on public transportation and some other gathering places despite a federal judge’s ruling earlier this week that the federal government cannot require masks in planes or other public transport.

In New York, masks will continue to be required on buses and subways and in train stations as well as in state-regulated health care facilities, adult care facilities and nursing homes; correctional institutions; homeless shelters; and shelters for victims of domestic violence.

During a briefing in Syracuse, the governor highlighted the prevalence of two new subvariants of the omicron strain of COVID-19.

“If we hadn’t seen these two variants, I suspect we could have said goodbye to masks in all settings,” Hochul said.

Hochul, who is seeking a full term, said she thinks people feel better when everyone wears a mask on public transport.

New York remains under a state of emergency due to hospital capacity issues and a shortage of healthcare workers. The governor recently extended those guidelines.

Central New York is experiencing the largest coronavirus outbreak in the continental United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York is the only state with multiple counties that the CDC considers high risk for spreading the virus; two counties in Kansas also have high levels of transmission.

There has been a sharp increase in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in central New York over the past month, although the total remains a third of what was recorded during the previous peak in early January. Less than 10% of staffed hospital beds are available in this region, according to status data.

Like New York as a whole, the capital region has seen an uptick in hospitalizations since early April, according to status data. Albany County reports less than 10% of its staffed intensive care unit beds are available for patients.

The state’s decision to continue requiring masks in certain settings is “short-term,” Hochul said, but she expects the state to reach a point where masks will no longer be needed.

The state’s ongoing mask requirements were first set out in early March, when the state Department of Health released orientation that said masks were necessary in specific contexts. The decision came at a controversial time when state leaders were considering whether to drop a mask mandate in public schools.

State guidelines cite CDC recommendations on mask wearing in certain locations, but do not depend on state action on federal agency guidelines.

“Updates to the … CDC recommendations will not necessarily require the release of a revised or modified determination,” the state health department’s guidance read in March. “However, these CDC recommendations will be continuously monitored by (the health department) and updated determinations will be released, as appropriate.”

Hochul said the change of CDC advice was motivated less by science than by the Federal Court’s decision, which was based on “procedural reasons”.

Elsewhere in the country, states and local governments have taken different approaches to changes in CDC requirements and the relative increase in COVID-19 transmission. In Philadelphia, the city reinstated an indoor mask mandate.

Critics of the state’s mask requirements have filed multiple lawsuits against the state. Many of these cases are still pending in state or federal courts, with some pending appeal.

Melvin Z. Madore