ALBANY, N.Y. — More than two years after New York became the global epicenter for the Covid-19 pandemic, the state once again finds itself near the top of the list of U.S. hotspots.
Two-thirds of the counties in the United States flagged by the CDC as having high community levels are in upstate New York, and cases and hospitalizations are still rising, albeit at a slower pace in recent days, across the state.
But unlike in the early days of the pandemic — or even during the recent Omicron surge — Gov. Kathy Hochul and state health officials aren’t pushing mask mandates or other restrictions.
Instead, the Democratic governor, who is running for a full term this year, is taking a more hands-off approach, merely encouraging vaccinations, boosters and mask wearing, except on public transit and in certain congregate settings where masks are still required.
“With the availability of vaccines, availability of home testing kits, we’re asking people to be very responsible on their own,” Hochul said at a campaign event in Albany on Tuesday. “I don’t think [a mask mandate is] going to be necessary, but we’re watching the numbers.”
The approach comes amid a larger shift in attitudes among public health officials on the best pandemic response at a time when two-thirds of Americans are fully vaccinated, antiviral treatments are available and Covid-related deaths are on the decline.
Some had hoped the rapid spread of Omicron would push the nation closer to having so-called herd immunity, making the debate about mandates a thing of the past. Case counts — particularly in the Northeast — suggest that hasn’t happened. Yet most public officials, including Democrats who’d long defended mask mandates as an essential public health tool, have little interest in reviving the discussion.
That shift is changing the political calculus for 2022 candidates. In an election year where more than 30 governors, Congress and many state legislatures are on the ballot, politicians have been loathe to consider mandates for fear of angering a pandemic-weary public and feeding red meat to political foes.
Take Philadelphia: In early April, it became the first city in the nation to reinstate a mask mandate. Then it quickly retreated amid backlash from residents, businesses and candidates on both sides of the aisle.
“The risk-benefit calculation has dramatically changed from the very beginning of the pandemic, or even from a year ago,” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former commissioner of the Baltimore City Health Department. “All that needs to be taken into consideration because one needs to think about what is the added benefit of the mask mandate?”
Wen, who is among the prominent voices calling for a “return to normal,” argued that policies like mask mandates were important early on in the pandemic when there were few tools available to stem the spread of the virus. But any benefits from instituting them now, given what has been learned over the last two years, may only be marginal and, thus, “not worth the political capital that would need to be expended to enforce it.”
Instead, she said, “we need to get away from the mask wars and start focusing on issues that we can all agree on, which are things like increasing testing, treatment and availability of vaccines and boosters.”
States grapple with Covid cases, elections
In New York, Hochul has focused her administration’s latest pandemic response on improving vaccination and booster rates, even as the CDC designated more than 20 counties as having a “high risk” for Covid transmission, a level at which mask wearing is recommended.
The governor has stressed that, while reported cases are once again rising in New York — outpacing rates seen in nearly all other states — “they’re nowhere near what they used to be,” even earlier this year.
“It’s a different circumstance,” she said this week.
New York reported a seven-day average of about 34.5 cases of Covid per 100,000 people on Wednesday. That compares to the state’s peak in early January 2022, when the seven-day average neared 400 cases per 100,000 residents. And it is about the same level reported in early February, when Hochul ended New York’s latest statewide mask requirement.
But it is still double what it was a month ago, and many of the new cases are concentrated in upstate New York around cities including Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse.
Since taking over for disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in August, Hochul has sought to differentiate her pandemic response from the one employed by her predecessor, whose top-down approach initially received praise and national attention, but later contributed to his high-profile resignation.
She worked with city and county leaders to encourage local responses to curb transmission, brought on a new state health commissioner and enhanced Covid data reporting and sharing.
“Masking on public transit statewide or health settings is effective under the state commissioner’s determination. However, recommending masking in particular indoor settings … is in the county purview to make that recommendation,” said Stephen Acquario, the executive director of the state Association of Counties. “So the state remains quite diverse in Covid response needs.”
Acquario added that, “for now, infection severity and hospitalization have not risen to a level of state concern, necessitating state intervention like what happened early on in the pandemic.”
But with the Omicron variant driving a spike in cases and hospitalizations in the final weeks of 2021, Hochul took a page out of Cuomo’s pandemic playbook and used her executive authority to institute new mask wearing requirements, among other temporary emergency actions. The moves sparked the ire of political opponents and even legal challenges.
That criticism has persisted in the weeks since Hochul ended the state’s “vax or mask” policy and school face covering requirement. More recently, Republican and Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls have slammed the governor’s late-April decision to continue the mask mandate for public transit, health care facilities and other congregant settings in light of the state’s rising caseload.
“This is very much in the short term,” she said last week. “We’re going to be mindful in places that they [masks] start coming off. We’re going to get there.”
Health Commissioner Mary Bassett said Monday she’s “proud of the fact that New York State is … the only big state that’s retained a mask mandate on public transport.”
“We’re also the state which is seeing elevated rates, so it’s easier for the public to understand,” she said at a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health forum.
Still, Democrats and Republicans are largely either shying away from any Covid mandates or outwardly opposing them.
Marc Molinaro, a moderate Republican who is running for Congress in one of state’s most competitive races, said in an interview, “There is neither an appetite for nor any effort by elected officials to get back to mandates.”
“I think that’s a mistake ultimately,” said Molinaro, the executive of Dutchess County, about 40 miles north of New York City. “What we’ve learned over the course of this pandemic is that there’s a point at which government should not exceed — and, in New York, government attempted and did exceed — the public tolerance too many times. At the end of the day, I don’t see that anyone wants to propose this.”
Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Long Island Democrat running for governor, told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that he “would remove the mandates” for the Long Island Rail Road and New York City subway, and instead “leave it up to personal responsibility.”
“I think that people should be wearing masks, I encourage you to wear a mask, but I think that mandates are a problem in this current environment. It’s so toxic,” he said.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Long Island Republican running for governor, agreed: “If someone wants to wear a mask over their face, that’s their personal decision, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else should be mandated by the government to do the same.”
Zeldin has also touted his efforts to “end all Covid mandates” and sought to tie Hochul to Cuomo’s contentious handling of the virus in nursing homes.
Covid responses across the nation
New York is not alone in having contentious elections that could be partially staked on leaders’ pandemic response.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats running in statewide races are drawing a line when it comes to masks — a signal from the candidates that voters have moved beyond pandemic-era precautions in the battleground state.
The posturing comes after Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to attempt a revival of its mask mandate for indoor public spaces amid a resurgence in spring Covid cases. The policy, which drew swift criticism from officials and candidates on both sides of the political aisle, abruptly ended just days after taking effect.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat who is running for Senate, said it was time to “move past Covid,” adding that he did not “agree with the imposition of the Philadelphia mask mandate” during a recent televised Democratic primary debate.
He’s not the only Democrat eschewing masks on the campaign trail. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the only major Democrat running for governor, pushed back on Philadelphia’s mask mandate, calling it “counterproductive.”
On the Republican side, candidates for Senate and governor have railed against pandemic-era policies like masks and school closures. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity surgeon endorsed by former President Donald Trump, has gone as far as to challenge President Joe Biden’s pandemic adviser, Anthony Fauci, to a debate.
Across the country, meanwhile, California lawmakers’ ambitious Covid vaccine agenda has already started to disintegrate. Bills that were introduced near the height of the Omicron-fueled surge to mandate workplace and student vaccinations were pulled before their first hearings.
And Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for reelection after surviving a 2021 recall, delayed his proposal to require school vaccinations until 2023 pending federal approval. The legislation faced considerable opposition from many businesses, labor organizations, school districts, parents and other constituents.
A number of Covid bills developed by a group of lawmakers known as the vaccine caucus, however, continue to advance.
Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health who also spoke at Monday’s Harvard event, said her jurisdiction is “the only county that has maintained” the public transit mask mandate.
“As a county, we have moved, on numerous occasions, in a manner that actually imposed more safety protections than either the state or the federal government was willing to do,” she said.
Despite all that, it remains unclear what role, if any, Covid and pandemic-era policies will play in shaping the 2022 election’s outcomes.
A poll from Siena College Research Institute released Monday found that only 3 percent of New Yorkers see the pandemic and vaccines as the single most important issue in deciding whom they will support for governor this November.
That’s compared to to 24 percent who said crime was most important; 9 percent who said taxes/fiscal responsibility and 8 percent who said the economy. And two-thirds of respondents further said they believed the worst of the Covid pandemic is over.
“The pandemic is not the top of mind issue for voters,” said Steve Greenberg, a Siena poll spokesperson. “If the election were right now, the pandemic would not play a big part in it, other than every New Yorker has been through it for the last two years. In terms of the issues they say they’re concerned about, if they were voting today, it would be economic issues and crime.”
While the economy has also eclipsed Covid as a top concern for many voters, Pennsylvanians said they may still vote with the pandemic in mind. Fifty-eight percent of Republican primary voters said in a Fox News poll from March that it is “extremely” or “very” important that a candidate share their views on Covid-19 policies, like mask mandates. The poll didn’t survey Democratic primary voters, but the numbers could preview how general election voters will view candidates this fall.
Still, voters haven’t soured entirely on masks. A recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found that 59 percent of Americans support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extending a mask mandate for travelers on planes and trains until May 3. (That mandate was tossed by a federal judge days later).
But that could change if masks mandates make a comeback, Greenberg said.
“I think when there are restrictions, there is a lot of push back from a certain percentage of people: that makes it a front-and-center issue more. Without that, at the moment, I think it’s crime and economic issues moreso than the pandemic,” he said.
“But, that said, I don’t know what the world’s going to look like in eight weeks.”
Stephanie Murray, Anna Gronewold and Victoria Colliver contributed to this report.