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New Yorkers face new mask-wearing mandate in public settings

ALBANY – New York State will require people to wear masks or cloth coverings over their mouths and noses if they go out in public and can’t maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet away from others, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday.

The executive order will take effect Friday at 8 p.m. to give people time to locate masks or make their own cloth coverings.

The requirement comes as new cases and net hospitalization rates are declining but state officials are scrambling to devise a “phased-in” approach to reopening the economy that has shuttered businesses and laid off workers across New York.

The mask order will cover people who cannot maintain social distancing – from public transit to busy city sidewalks or stores or parks or anywhere else in public. “If you can’t maintain social distancing, you have to wear a mask," Cuomo said.

The Democratic governor said there won’t be a criminal penalty for violators but there could be a civil penalty if people don’t follow the rule. He urged local governments to enforce it, and said that New Yorkers will likely ensure their fellow residents follow the order.

“You’re not going to go to jail for not wearing a mask," Cuomo said.

“What’s the big deal?” Cuomo said of the new order. Bandannas shaped to cover a person's mouth and nose will be acceptable, he said.

The Cuomo administration later said the order will also apply to people deemed to be working in "essential" sectors, including first responders, utility workers and grocery store clerks.

An executive order issued by Cuomo Wednesday night said the mandate will apply to anyone over the age of two "and able to medically tolerate a face-covering" if they are in a public place "and unable to maintain, or when not maintaining, social distance." The order did not specifically define "social distance" but officials have maintained that people in public places should keep at least six feet of separation from other individuals.

The governor Wednesday also said New York is developing a “blueprint” for reopening the state’s economy. It is premised on the belief that a virus vaccine won’t be available for as long as 18 months and that there is not treatment yet for the coronavirus.

In the meantime, Cuomo said a massive expansion of testing must be launched to help test more New Yorkers as businesses at some point in the future are allowed to reopen. But he said the federal government needs to become a partner with the states to do more antibody and other forms of testing.

Cuomo said there will be two basic standards the state will apply to letting companies bring workers back to offices, stores and restaurants:

• First, how “essential” is the business, function or product to the economy?

• What is the risk of infection spreading if that business or service is allowed to reopen?

Priority will be given to businesses that adapt their operations to limit personal interactions between workers or between workers and customers. Cuomo said it will be “almost a business by business evaluation."

When precisely all that might happen? Cuomo did not say.

At his daily virus briefing at the Capitol, Cuomo also said the state – reversing an earlier policy – will “release as much information as possible” on coronavirus cases in nursing homes. But he said the state needs to “respect legal rights to privacy."

“Should your parent’s picture be on the front page of the newspaper the next day because they passed away from Covid?" Cuomo said.

The calls for transparency about nursing homes, however, have not been for the state to identify individual patients, but for numerical numbers of cases and deaths at specific nursing homes being made public.

The Buffalo News filed with the state Department of Health on April 7 a Freedom of Information Law request for the data and specifically stated in the request it was not seeking the identities of nursing home residents who tested positive.

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