After a legal battle played out in New York’s court system this week, its state mask mandate was temporarily upheld Tuesday, but the back-and-forth left many residents trying to determine whether mask wearing at certain places was required or optional.
The mandate, which was enacted in December and applies to indoor public places that lack mandatory vaccination policies, came to a court-ordered end Monday. But the mandate was put back in place by an appellate court judge Tuesday as the issue makes its way through the appeals process.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul applauded the court for “siding with common sense and granting an interim stay,” and commended Attorney General Letitia James for defending the health of New Yorkers.
“These measures are critical tools to prevent the spread of Covid-19, make schools and businesses safe, and save lives,” Hochul said. “We will not stop fighting to protect New Yorkers, and we are confident we will continue to prevail.”
But some parents and local officials feel that mandates for mask wearing, particularly at schools, have gone on for long enough.
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman signed an executive order this month that allowed school boards to determine if students should be required wear masks. He called the original ruling against the mandate “a major win for students & parents.”
Hochul’s declaration to mandate mask wearing stemmed from the state facing a wave of Covid-19 infections before the holiday season.
Since New Year’s, the Covid-19 situation has begun to improve as confirmed cases are dropping. A weekly average of 595,095 daily new infections reported January 9, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, had dropped to 166,538 average daily new cases by January 24.
The mandate had been extended by the state two weeks past its initial end date of January 15.
On Monday, Nassau County Supreme Court Judge Thomas Rademaker struck down the mandate on the grounds that Hochul and State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett lacked the authority to make such a move without state legislature approval.
“While the intentions of Commissioner Bassett and Governor Hochul appear to be well aimed squarely at doing what they believe is the right to protect the citizens of New York State, they must take their case to the State Legislature,” Rademaker wrote in his ruling, adding that his decision was strictly over whether the rule was properly enacted.
“To be clear, this Court does not intend this decision in any way to question or otherwise opine on the efficacy, need, or requirement of masks as a means or tool in dealing with the COVID-19 virus,” Rademaker wrote.
Hochul said she strongly disagreed with Rademaker’s ruling and would work to reverse the decision immediately.
“My responsibility as Governor is to protect New Yorkers throughout this public health crisis, and these measures help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and save lives,” Hochul said in a statement Monday.
Attorney General James’ office filed a motion to stay the ruling, which was granted Tuesday.
Chad J. LaVeglia, an attorney for the plaintiffs and one of several parents challenging the mask mandate in court, told CNN the stay is “temporary and standard in these situations,” and the plaintiffs will file a reply by Friday.
Where things stand in schools
The differing court rulings have left confusion among many New York school districts about how to move forward with mask requirements.
At least 15 school districts made mask wearing optional Tuesday citing the earlier court decision, according to a CNN review. Many of the districts in their announcements were keen to caution that because of the quickly shifting legal situation, masks may be required once again.
At least nine school districts and the Archdiocese of New York indicated they’ll keep the mask mandate in place.
Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New York superintendent Michael J. Deegan said in a statement he and officials “will continue to monitor this situation closely.”
“It is the fervent hope of the Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese the mask mandate will be eliminated allowing our schools to make mask wearing optional. At that time our schools will IMMEDIATELY make masks optional,” the statement said.
“Until the court renders a final decision, Catholic schools will follow the state mask mandate.”
Other states face mask debate
New York is not the only state facing ongoing legal battles over mask mandates.
In Virginia, an executive order banning universal mask requirements in schools is being challenged in court by a group of parents in Chesapeake County as well as several school boards.
Some of the state’s largest school districts, including Fairfax County Public Schools, have defied Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s orders and continue to enforce mask mandates.
“We have found ourselves here really not out of desire, but out of necessity,” Stella Pekarsky, chair of the Fairfax County Public Schools Board, told CNN Monday.
“What we’ve seen all year long is that the layered mitigation strategies that we’ve been able to put in place have really kept our kids safe,” Pekarsky said. “It has kept us from having to close individual schools. So, we’ve been able to control transmission and a large part of that is because this universal masking.”
In Iowa, a federal appeals court ruled some school districts can ignore the state’s ban on mask mandates when necessary to protect the health of disabled students.
The ruling narrowed the order of a federal district court judge, who said any school district in Iowa could impose a mask mandate to protect students with a disability making them more vulnerable to Covid-19.
Instead, the appeals court said the injunction would apply directly only to the 10 school districts named in the lawsuit. Since some districts may not have any disabled students with a special vulnerability to Covid-19, the appeals court said, a federal disability exception to the state ban would not apply to them.
CNN’s Sonia Moghe, Laura Studley, Holly Yan, Andy Rose, Mirna Alsharif, Rob Frehse, Paradise Afshar and Jenn Selva contributed to this report.