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NEW YORK — Gov. Hochul called on New Yorkers to continue covering their faces Tuesday as the state appealed a court ruling striking down the state’s COVID mask mandate, sparking confusion among schools and businesses.
The state was granted a stay by Appellate Court Judge Robert Miller, keeping Hochul’s mask mandate in place while the appeal process continues.
“I’m encouraging parents and students to continue doing what they’re doing because the last thing I want to see is a different trend because people gave up on the masks,” Hochul said at an event in Syracuse.
In a statement following the stay order, the governor applauded Miller for “siding with common sense and granting an interim stay to keep the state’s important masking regulations in place.”
The governor said she expects the case to be settled shortly and stood by her belief that the Department of Health has the authority to require workers, shoppers and school kids to wear masks indoors.
Earlier, lawyers for the state faced off against attorneys representing Long Island parents challenging the mandate a day after a Nassau judge deemed it unconstitutional.
During the hearing, lawyers for the state argued that ending the edict would allow COVID to spread more easily in public indoor settings like schools, jails and nursing homes.
“Disrupting the status quo like that will cause immediate and irreparable public harm,” said Judith Vale, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office representing the state Health Department.
But attorneys for the group of parents opposed to mandatory masking in schools argued the state simply does not have the authority to make such an order.
“The law of the land is the law of the land, and there is no valid justification for violating it,” said Chad Laveglia, arguing that the state Legislature would need to grant the Health Department the authority for a mask mandate.
In December, New York’s current mask mandate, set to expire on Feb. 1, was put in place by Hochul as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surged due to the highly contagious omicron variant.
Tuesday’s hearing followed Nassau County Judge Thomas Rademaker’s decision to toss Hochul’s indoor mask mandate, ruling that such an order could only be implemented through the Legislature.
Lawmakers last year clawed back some of the emergency powers initially granted to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2020 as the pandemic ravaged New York.
Rademaker ruled that without those emergency powers in place, the Health Department simply does not have the “authority to make law.”
“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,” he added.
Attorney General Letitia James touted the importance of masks as she called Tuesday’s reinstatement a win for the state.
“This mandate and today’s decision are critical in helping to stop the spread of this virus and protect individuals young and old,” James said. “We will continue to do everything in our power to prioritize the health and well-being of all New Yorkers.”
The state’s mask rules for schools were put in place last August before classes started, raising the ire of parents across the state. Hochul’s December mask order superseded the earlier rule and included an initial end date in mid-January. It was later extended through Feb. 1 as COVID cases skyrocketed over the holidays.
Hochul has repeatedly emphasized the importance of masks as vaccination rates among school-age children remain low.
Meanwhile, widespread confusion reigned Tuesday as some school districts told parents that masks would be optional going forward and others said they believed the state mandate remained in place while the appeal was pending.
The state Education Department initially told districts Monday night that the state’s appeal automatically triggered a stay, and that they must continue to follow the mask mandate in the interim.
Education officials shifted their message hours later, saying they were seeking to “confirm” whether a stay was issued, and softening their stance to say only that schools “should” continue to follow the mask mandate.
Following the stay order, Education Commissioner Betty Rosa clarified further that the mask mandate remains in effect for schools across the state for the time being.
“We support Gov. Hochul and the state Department of Health as they continue with the appeal,” Rosa said. “We thank the members of our school communities for their patience during this process.”
Long Island has become the epicenter of the anti-mask movement in recent weeks after newly elected Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman openly defied the state and allowed schools to decide whether students need to wear masks in classrooms.
Blakeman, a Republican, signed an executive order earlier this month, giving Nassau school boards the ability to opt out of the statewide student mask mandate.
On Tuesday, Blakeman said it was time for the governor to “stand down.”
“Mask decisions should be made by families and school boards who have their finger on the pulse of their communities. Not Albany politicians,” he said. “Nassau is normal again, and our county will continue to lead the way as an example for the rest of the state to follow.”
(With Michael Elsen-Rooney)