A requirement that students, teachers and staff wear masks in Massachusetts schools will end on Feb. 28, Governor Charlie Baker said on Wednesday, joining a growing list of state leaders planning to lift face-covering rules as the latest COVID-19 surge eases.
Baker, a Republican, said at a news briefing that Massachusetts had “far more tools available to us to deal with the pandemic than we had at the beginning,” noting that children are unlikely to get seriously sick from COVID-19 and that his state has the nation’s second highest child vaccination rate.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Wednesday is expected to announce the end of her state’s mask mandate for most indoor public places, the New York Times reported, citing three individuals briefed on the move.
The Democratic governor intends to let the mask mandate, which has been challenged in court, expire rather than seeking to renew it, the newspaper said.
It remains unclear whether Hochul’s administration would renew or drop a separate compulsory masking rule in New York public schools that is due to lapse in two weeks. However, CBS news radio on Wednesday reported that she intended to keep the school mask mandate in place for now due to low vaccination rates among young school age children.
Representatives for the governor did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Hochul said this week that any lifting of New York’s mask mandate for schools would hinge on the pandemic falling to an appropriate level. She said on Monday she would need more time to access public health metrics before making a decision on schools.
Hochul called the general mask mandate temporary when she imposed it Dec. 31 as the highly contagious Omicron variant threatened to strain healthcare systems.
At Wednesday’s briefing, Baker said school districts in Massachusetts would still have the power to establish masking requirements, and the state’s education department would issue guidance for specific scenarios. Students who wish to continue to wear masks may do so, Baker said.
“It’s time to give our kids a sense of normalcy,” Baker said. “COVID, like many other respiratory diseases that we’re familiar with, will be with us for the foreseeable future.”
Officials in several Democratic-led states – New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Delaware and Oregon – announced on Monday that they were lifting mask mandates for schools and other public settings in the coming weeks.
‘NOT THE MOMENT’
In all those instances, authorities cited the receding Omicron-fueled wave of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations that began sweeping the United States during the year-end 2021 holiday season.
But U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Reuters on Tuesday that with cases still high nationwide, “now is not the moment” to drop mask mandates in schools and other public places.
The relaxation of masking rules signals an inclination by politicians to take pandemic-weary residents off an emergency footing and shift toward treating the virus as part of everyday life.
Some states that have continued to push mask mandates are facing legal challenges and public protests.
On Friday, a judge in Illinois ruled Governor J.B. Pritzker did not have the authority to issue a statewide school mask mandate executive order and halted it.
Despite the ruling, several Illinois school districts including Chicago Public Schools, the third largest system in the United States, continued to mandate masks.
In Algonquin, a northwest suburb of Chicago, dozens parents protested outside a school on Tuesday against their district’s decision to continue to require masks.
“I’m standing up for my kids,” parent Suzette Kallhoff told WGN News. “Everyone’s had time to get vaccinated, the masks haven’t made a difference with cases, the studies are shown and enough is enough.”
Several studies have shown that proper masking does slow infection transmission.
A New York state judge struck down Hochul’s mask mandate last month, ruling she had overstepped her authority.
But an appeals court judge stayed that decision the next day, keeping it intact while the case remained under judicial review.