ALBANY – The number of new Covid-19 cases each day in New York State has nearly tripled in the past month, as a reopened summer economy has jammed vacation destinations, restaurants and other public places.
Health officials from Buffalo to downstate are cautiously watching the spread of the Delta variant, which has hit states with lower vaccination rates, contributed to Wall Street’s slide on Monday and increased worries at the Olympic Village in Tokyo.
Now, with nearly 9,000 newly infected New Yorkers in the past 10 days, some officials wonder: Is it time to restore mandatory, or at least recommended, mask policies for people, regardless of their vaccination status, in indoor public settings in New York State?
For now, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has heralded the notion that Covid is increasingly in the rearview window, does not appear to be publicly considering a return to mask mandates, beyond those that are still in place from last year. Instead, he and others, including Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, are focused on pushing more people to get vaccinated in what Cuomo Tuesday called the state’s “greatest tool” to erase Covid.
“There’s a concern about the rise in rates of infection, especially with the Delta variant, and as always we want to reinforce the call for everyone to get vaccinated," said Peter Anderson, a spokesman for Poloncarz. For “right now,’’ there are not masking mandate ideas being considered in Erie County, he added.
On Monday, the state's seven-day average of new Covid cases reached 1,002. One month earlier, on June 19, it was 350. The current number, while an increase, still pales compared with the seven-day average of 16,335 cases on Jan. 11, the highest number reached during the pandemic. The lowest seven-day average this year came on June 27, with 307 cases.
On Tuesday, federal officials announced the Delta variant accounted for 83% of the coronavirus cases in the United States in the past week.
The number of people tested for Covid has fallen sharply in recent weeks and months. So, too, has the number of people getting vaccinated. In the most recent seven-day period, 237,000 people statewide got a vaccination dose, compared with more than 800,000 during a week in mid-June.
Also on Tuesday, Cuomo reported that 56% of all New Yorkers had completed a Covid vaccine series. He also announced the closure of four more mass vaccination sites in order to shift resources to areas with the lowest vaccination rates.
To mask or not
The state’s current rise in Covid infection levels is a fraction of the peaks in cases, hospitalizations and deaths from more than a year ago when the virus first stormed across New York. About 54,000 people have died from Covid in New York since its outbreak began in the late winter of 2020.
New York’s mask policy – except where the coverings are mandatory in health settings, public transit facilities and busses, subways and airplanes, homeless shelters and correctional facilities – is based heavily on the honor system.
“Smile and show us your face if you are vaccinated," states one sign on an entrance to a store outside Albany. But, shopkeepers and restaurateurs don’t ask if a patron not wearing a mask has been vaccinated and it's rare – though legal under state rules – for a shop to require all customers entering their premises to be masked.
The mask issue, already one that became heavily politicized during the pandemic in many parts of the nation, is heating up again. In Los Angeles, health officials this week reimposed a mask mandate for indoor public settings following a sharp rise in Covid cases. Officials there have suggested mask mandates – regardless of vaccination status – aren’t directed at those who are vaccinated, but are a way to protect the many people who walk around in public places without masks and who are not vaccinated.
In New York City, calls began heating up this week following several weeks of rising Covid caseloads. De Blasio on Monday rejected the idea.
Some state lawmakers are worried. “I believe the growth in overall Covid cases, and specific growth in the spread of the Delta variant, more than warrants a review of policy and support for the wearing of masks in indoor public places," State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, told The Buffalo News this week.
Some public health officials, including the former surgeon general during the Trump administration, expressed concerns about the federal government’s decision in May to loosen mask requirements for fully vaccinated people. This week, following pressure from the American Academy of Pediatrics, federal officials signaled they are examining a possible change in guidance so that everyone in a school settings over the age of 2 – regardless of vaccination status – wears a mask when classes resume this summer and fall.
The vast majority of those hospitalized for Covid in most areas of the country had not been vaccinated.
There have been high-profile cases of professional and Olympic athletes either contracting Covid or being exposed to it.
In England, Covid restrictions were lifted this week, even though cases are spiking again there and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in quarantine following his possible exposure to Covid.
There is sharp dissension among some health experts about mask edicts being slapped on those who have gotten vaccinated.
“There is not data to support the use of masks in vaccinated people," said Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins University and professor of health policy and management at the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“Requiring masks in this population comes at the risk of damaging public health credibility," Makary told The Buffalo News.
Who’s in control?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that those not fully vaccinated and aged 2 or older should wear a mask in indoor public places. States can accept or reject that guidance.
Cuomo last month, citing low Covid caseloads, ended the state of emergency that gave him extraordinary powers across the state to impose everything from mask mandates to restrictions on restaurant hours. On June 24, he said the Covid positivity rate fell to .30% among those tested. On July 1, he announced the state “is getting closer each day to defeating the Covid-19 pandemic for good.”
A couple days ago, that statewide rate was above 1.50% following a steady rise in regions throughout New York. Meanwhile, the mass testing sites that were scattered around the state have all since closed. State health officials say there are plenty of testing facilities in neighborhood drugstores or private physician offices. Daily Covid tests are down by approximately one third in recent days compared with late last month.
When Cuomo lifted the state of emergency, his administration also concurrently issued emergency regulations – which took effect immediately – giving the state Health Department ongoing powers over quarantine orders, social distancing requirements and mask rules. That emergency rule also states that it is up to localities to enforce mask requirements on public transit or in health care settings.
The end of the governor’s emergency powers shifted, more clearly, power back to county health departments, which have broad authority on public health responsibilities in pandemics or other emergencies. The counties found themselves, to the anger of some local officials, largely having to follow the state’s response to closure orders and activities like contact tracing.
The state Health Department still sets overall state health rules regarding Covid matters, like mask wearing, but now counties can more definitively set their own standards so long as they do not fall below the state’s threshold.
Steve Acquario, the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, said his group strongly believes public health recommendations regarding Covid must first come from the federal CDC and state Health Department.
While counties could act unilaterally on their own to enact, say, a more sweeping mask mandate, Acquario said those cases will be “few and far between” because the state and CDC have been calling the shots on Covid since the start and counties don’t want to start – unless there is some narrow, geographically defined emergency – creating a checkerboard system across the state.
“I don’t think the public would accept it, and it would be confusing," Acquario said of localities acting on their own without some sort of federal or state guidance.