ALBANY – All state workers will be required to get the Covid-19 vaccine before Labor Day or face regular testing for the virus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday as the pandemic continues to show its reluctance to disappear amid the worsening caseloads of its delta variant.
The vaccine-or-test requirement spread to a number of other government entities Wednesday, from the state Senate and Assembly to the court systems across New York.
The governor's mandate came following the same requirements imposed earlier this week by New York City and California on its government workers, and after word spread that President Biden was imposing a similar rule for federal workers.
About 130,000 executive branch agency workers will be covered by the edict. The Democratic governor urged local governments to take the same route.
The vaccination-or-test mandate was backed by the largest state workers union, while the union representing state troopers said it was exploring its legal options on the matter.
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?
Cuomo punted for another day regarding a state response to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance issued Tuesday that people in high-Covid-19-rate areas resume wearing masks indoors in public places – regardless of vaccination status.
He said mask guidance is still under review, even though the CDC guidance would kick in – with Cuomo’s OK – in the state’s most densely populated areas of New York City and Long Island.
Instead, Cuomo said, localities in high-Covid-19 areas should “strongly consider” following the CDC mask guidance on their own. With Cuomo recently declaring an end to his administration’s state of emergency regarding the pandemic, localities have had restored some legal public health authorities that were on hold during the emergency period that began last year.
But the New York State Association of Counties last week told The Buffalo News that local health leaders will be reluctant to act on their own on such sweeping ideas as mask or vaccine requirements and that they want to first see guidance from the CDC and Cuomo. Now, counties are left with the CDC guidance, but no firm requirement from Cuomo.
On Wednesday, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said a mask requirement could be returning here as soon as this week.
The mask mandate likely would apply to indoor gatherings, from bars and restaurants to bowling alleys and meetings, the Erie County executive said.
With a growing number of hospitals requiring vaccinations of its workers, Cuomo said the state will also require “front-facing” hospital workers to get vaccinated – though only at hospitals that are state-owned. There will be no opt-out for them to get regular testing instead of the Covid-19 jab. He said other hospital systems, such as those privately run or by counties, should also require vaccinating such health workers.
“I’m on legally sound ground," Cuomo said of the new vaccine edict, though he said the state will discuss the matter with unions that represent the affected workers. He did not say whether there would be any exceptions for health or religious objections.
The union representing the most state workers, the Civil Service Employees Association, said it is supporting Cuomo in the vaccination or weekly testing rule for state workers.
Mary Sullivan, the CSEA president, said the state "has come a long way in overcoming Covid-19 together and we cannot slide backwards now or we put our members, workers, our families, children and all of us at great risk," she said.
The Public Employees Federation, which represents white collar state workers, said it encourages its members to get vaccinated, but that the Cuomo plan must be negotiated with labor unions.
Erie County's rising caseload comes as the nation grapples with a new wave of Covid-19 cases driven by the more infectious delta variant.
Thomas Mungeer, president of the PBA representing state troopers, said the union was "caught off guard" by Cuomo's vaccination announcement. He said the union is exploring its legal options "because we believe this is a change in terms and conditions of employment."
A similar concern was raised by the union representing state prison guards. Michael Powers, the president of the union called NYSCOPBA, said it was time for Cuomo to stop making such decisions "in a vacuum," adding that it is "disheartening" that Cuomo is taking "such drastic steps without any input from the individuals this directly affects."
The Cuomo administration said the state will be talking with the unions on implementing the vaccine or testing requirements.
The vaccine mandate comes only six weeks after Cuomo ordered fireworks to celebrate the state hitting a certain vaccination rate level. Now, new pressure is coming Cuomo’s way as the rate of Covid-19-positive cases rises across the state, even though testing is sharply down over the past several months.
More than 54,000 New Yorkers have died from Covid-19 since 2021, according to the CDC.
The governor sent some mixed signals Wednesday about how New York should be reacting to rising Covid-19 cases, which are so far heavily concentrated among people who have not been vaccinated.
As he sounded worries about the rising Covid-19 caseloads, Cuomo also signaled that private companies need to rely less on virtual and home settings.
“To my private sector friends, you have to be part of this," he said.
He urged private companies to require employees to return to the workplace after Labor Day. He did not say anything about whether such companies should require vaccinations or regular testing of workers.
Cuomo hesitated on agreeing with the CDC over whether vaccinated people can go maskless indoors in public settings in areas of the country with high Covid-19-positive infection levels.
For now, Erie County and other Western New York counties are exempt from the CDC guidance because of lower Covid-19 cases than the CDC standard. But, on the CDC’s color-coded system, Erie County is just one step removed from having to follow the federal revised guidance, and cases in the region, and elsewhere in the state, have been ticking higher the past several weeks.
At the floor for the CDC’s guidance – 50 cases per 100,000 population over a seven-day average – the mask policy would apply to all five boroughs of New York City, Long Island and one upstate county: Greene in the northern Catskills.
Businesses can have their own mask requirements for patrons, but most in the state have adopted the previous federal guideline that people with vaccines don’t need to be masked but that mask-wearing is still required for those not vaccinated. However, as any New Yorker knows, the guidance is not enforced and it is rare that retail, restaurant or other such businesses ever ask a patron’s vaccine status.
Cuomo said schools will have to “take a serious look” at what actions they will take if cases keep rising. He did not comment on whether schools should go the vaccine route, but said he believes they have the legal authority to require vaccinations of all district workers.