Gov. Kathy Hochul says New York's mass transit COVID mask mandate remains in effect for the "short term" but didn't specify a timeline Wednesday as she faced questions after a federal judge's decision voided the national rule earlier this week.
Hochul emphasized that it was a federal judge's procedural overturn, not a shift in perspective from the federal health agencies overseeing the pandemic, that ended the national mask mandate for travel. The CDC still encourages mask-wearing, especially in congested settings where vaccination status can't be determined.
In New York, which is managing a fresh COVID uptick fueled by what may be the most contagious subvariants yet, as experts have said, face coverings are still the order of the day for mass transit as far as Hochul is concerned.
She hopes it won't be for much longer, though.
"If we hadn't seen these two variants I'd suspect we would've been able to say goodbye to masks in all settings," Hochul said Wednesday, referring to omicron subvariants BA.2.12.1 and BA.2.12. "But you know we watch for variants, they come ... and now we're starting to see cases and hospitalizations go up."
That's why New Yorkers can expect the state to hold the line on its current mask plan, which Hochul stressed should only be in place for the "short term."
"Let's just be smart about it," Hochul said, acknowledging the psychological impact of the longstanding mask mandates as well. "I think people do feel better to know they're protected when they're sitting in close proximity on a bus or train."
It comes as parts of the state find themselves with the highest COVID risk in America, based on the CDC's community-based risk assessment, and as New York's core viral rates, including the more severe lagging indicators, climb.
COVID hospitalizations are up nearly 60% in the last month statewide, though health department data shows more than half of New York COVID patients who were hospitalized were admitted for reasons other than the respiratory virus.
Hochul says New York isn't expecting a slow climb, then another meteoric surge in COVID cases as was the case with the initial omicron spike in December and January. But "we don't know right now what that little bump is going to look like."
That, Hochul says, merits some caution.
"We feel very comfortable," the governor said as far as the state's pandemic position. "Nothing has changed in how we handle it but we're not losing sight of it."
A number of transit agencies have made their own decisions in the wake of the federal mask ruling. NJ Transit says face coverings are optional, while New York City taxis and the MTA, which is jointly run by the city and state, are holding firm for now.
A new poll finds that a majority of Americans continue to support a mask requirement for people traveling on airplanes and other shared transportation even in the wake of U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle's Monday decision.
In her 59-page ruling issued Monday, Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the mandate extension exceeded the authority of the federal agencies that implemented it. She also said the CDC failed to justify its recommendation to extend the rule and lacked proper rulemaking in its process.
Mizelle argued the only remedy was to vacate the rule entirely because it'd be impossible to end it for the limited group who objected in the lawsuit.
The CDC initially extended the mask mandate, which was set to expire Monday, until May 3 to allow more time to study the BA.2 omicron subvariant of the coronavirus that is now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the U.S. and New York.
The judge's Monday decision tosses that out, though local jurisdictions can opt for stricter measures if they so choose. A number of agencies came out with updated plans following the announcement, and for those that haven't (or states that are holding back on the change), critics say lower numbers should inform the decision.
In the meantime, here's where tri-state public transit agencies stand now:
PORT AUTHORITY AIRPORTS AND BUSES
The Port Authority said it would follow the guidelines of local authorities -- which means as of now, masks are required at JFK, LaGuardia and Stewart airports, but NOT required at Newark Liberty or Teterboro.
Masks also remain required at the Midtown Bus Terminal, the GWB Bus Station, the Oculus, and on the PATH.
The MTA, which oversees the New York City subway and bus system, as well as Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road, said that mask requirements will continue to be enforced.
"The mask requirement on public transit in NY remains in effect for now pursuant to a March 2, 2022 determination by the New York State Department of Health," MTA Communications Director Tim Minton told News 4 New York.
The agency said earlier that they would continue to follow CDC guidelines.
After initially saying that masks would continue to be required aboard their trains, Amtrak later reversed course and stated that they would be optional for workers and travelers.
"While Amtrak passengers and employee are not longer required to wear masks while on board trains or in stations, masks are welcome and remain an important preventative measure against COVID-19," Amtrak said in a statement. "Anyone needing or choosing to wear one is encouraged to do so."
NJ Transit told NBC New York on Monday afternoon they would continue to require masks onboard their transportation - but by Tuesday morning Gov. Phil Murphy announced a change of plans.
The NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, the city agency responsible for licensing and regulating New York City's Medallion (yellow) taxi cabs, for-hire vehicles (community-based liveries, black cars and luxury limousines), commuter vans, and paratransit vehicles, announced Tuesday that masks are still required in all of their vehicles.
UBER & LYFT (IN NYC)
However, TLC’s mask requirement remains in effect for all taxis and for-hire vehicles -- which Uber and Lyft fall under. With that in mind, the TLC mask mandate (see NYC TAXIS section above) continues to apply to them in New York City. Uber and Lyft state in some of their messaging that masks may still be required in certain jurisdictions, so while they changed their own policy, they are still subject to state and local laws and regulations.
PATH will require masks, including on trains, at stations and on platforms, except where those platforms are open-air.
The bus company said in a statement that they will continue "to follow federal guidelines requiring customers wear face masks while in transit."
Masks will not be required on NY Waterway ferries, buses or in terminals. However, there is an exception:
- NY Waterway operates 2 Hudson Valley lines under contract with the MTA, which are subject to the MTA's rules. On those routes (Newburgh-Beacon and Haverstraw-Ossining) masks are still required by the MTA.
Mask use is still required on the NYC Ferry.