New York's governor on Wednesday announced an end to a years-long COVID-19 rule that people had largely stopped heeding, and officials had stopped enforcing, months ago.
The MTA mask mandate implemented at the start of the pandemic is over, Gov. Kathy Hochul said. The rule also ends in for-hire vehicles, airports, homeless shelters, correctional facilities and detention centers statewide. It takes effect immediately.
Masking requirements remain in effect for adult care facilities and other health facilities regulated by the state Department of Health, she added.
"Masks are encouraged but optional on our mass transit across our state of New York," Hochul said. "If you choose not to have a mask, it's your own risk assessment. You make your own determination but do not judge your fellow passengers on what their choices are."
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Hochul, a Democrat, had hinted at an imminent end to the transit COVID requirement a day ago, but Wednesday's expected announcement has been a long time coming. She said in mid-April the mask mandate would remain in effect for the "short-term," but the emergence of omicron subvariants BA.2.12.1 and BA.2.12 and a corresponding uptick in hospitalizations soon followed. Then came the most contagious COVID strain yet in BA.5.
But with the feds rolling out omicron-specific COVID vaccine boosters this week (learn more here), and COVID numbers on the decline, Hochul is expected to say she's ready to make the move.
"Thanks to everyone who has been compliant on the subway for 28 months," Hochul said.
The mask mandate "was there for the right reason, to protect our health," she added. "This is watching the trends and we're seeing a stabilization. We're very optimistic that we will be assuring each others' safety."
New York's rolling new case average is down 39% in the last month, while COVID hospitalizations are down 20% in the same time frame.
The MTA apparently stopped tracking compliance with mask-wearing back in April, when the federal government stopped enforcing face coverings at airports and on planes and trains. However, since the start of the pandemic, the MTA has provided masks to employees and customers -- ultimately distributing 56 million free masks as part of the agency's “Safe Travels and Operation Respect as well as the launch of the MTA Mask Force in June 2020, which had volunteers and MTA officials going to stations and onboard MTA's public transportation to distribute masks and educate riders on mask usage.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic the MTA has been guided by the health experts,” said MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber. “With revised guidance from the New York State Department of Health, which was the basis for the mask requirement on public transit, now is the right time for New Yorkers to make personal choices about what works best for them.”
Meanwhile, MTA Chief Safety Officer Patrick Warren said that "mask usage remains a great defense against COVID-19 and will still be encouraged while riding" although it is not required.
“Customers should continue to do what they are most comfortable with while riding public transit whether that means wearing a mask or not,” MTA Acting Chief Customer Officer Shanifah Rieara added. “To inform customers of this change, we are rolling out a variety of updated signage, audio announcements, and social media posts encouraging customers to do what they prefer. Free masks will continue to be readily available throughout the system for those who need and still want to wear one.”