Serino also criticizes state order as COVID-19 cases rise
The executives for Dutchess and Putnam say they will not enforce the state’s new indoor mask mandate for businesses as both counties face a surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths that has been worsening since August.
Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell, a Republican, issued a statement on Monday (Dec. 13), the first day businesses and venues had to require masks indoors for staff and patrons unless they verify that everyone entering is fully vaccinated. The state is directing local health departments to enforce the order, which includes fines of up to $1,000 for each violation a business incurs.
Odell said businesses cannot be expected “to implement this unrealistic order” and that Putnam’s Health Department is “working overtime” to vaccinate residents while preparing to open a six-day-a-week testing center at the county’s office complex in Carmel before Christmas. The department is not a “policing agency,” she said.
“Are we really supposed to stop them from running essential vaccine clinics and redirect them to checking whether the unvaccinated are entering buildings unmasked?” said Odell.
Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, said in a Facebook post on Sunday (Dec. 12) that the requirement is “unenforceable” and “will become confrontational.” The county will not “escalate tension or conflict or further burden our local small businesses,” said Molinaro, who is running for the U.S. House seat held by Democrat Antonio Delgado.
His position was reiterated in an email sent Monday by Colleen Pillus, a representative for the county. It said that Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration, which announced the mandate on Dec. 10, “acknowledged” that local health departments are not expected to redeploy staff “from critical responsibilities” like vaccinating residents.
The state also “indicated” that counties should focus on “education only for a minimum of two weeks” to foster compliance with the mask requirement, said Andrew Sherman Evans Jr., Dutchess County’s director of public health and disease prevention.
“Beyond this period, Dutchess County has been advised against and will not divert critical health department resources away from other activities for the purpose of enforcement,” Evans said in the email.
The New Mandate
On Monday (Dec. 13), the state issued more-detailed guidance for its new mask mandate. The order will be re-evaluated on Jan. 15.
The mandate covers:
Businesses and venues, including indoor entertainment venues, concert halls, indoor sports stadiums, recreational spaces, restaurants, office buildings, shopping centers, grocery stores, pharmacies, houses of worship and common areas in residential buildings.
The state is requiring that:
Any person over 2 years old, and medically able to tolerate a face covering, must wear a mask indoors at public places, regardless of vaccination status. Businesses and venues can choose to implement a vaccination requirement, requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of entry. Whichever requirement is selected, it must apply to all, including staff, patrons, visitors and guests. A business and venue cannot do a “combination” requirement.
If a business opts to verify vaccination:
They must ensure that anyone 12 years of age or older is fully vaccinated before entering. (Fully vaccinated is defined as 14 days past the second shot of a two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine; and 14 days past the one-shot Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine.) Children between ages 5 and 11 years old, who just became eligible last month for the Pfizer vaccine, only need proof of their initial shot.
If food or beverages are served:
Patrons can remove their masks only while they are actively eating or drinking, at which time appropriate social-distancing measures, proper air ventilation and filtration methods are highly recommended. Masks should be worn at all other times.
The mandate reverses the state’s adoption, in May, of relaxed mask guidelines after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in public.
Those guidelines, instituted as COVID-19 cases were waning, still required unvaccinated people to wear masks in public; allowed businesses to mandate that customers wear face coverings; and kept masks in place at K-12 schools, homeless shelters, prisons, nursing homes and health care settings, and on public transit such as Metro-North.
Seven months later, the state is experiencing another wave of infections, which began in August, driven by the Delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.
New York reported 18,000 new cases on Wednesday (Dec. 15), nearly nine times the 2,143 from Aug. 1. Although upstate counties are seeing the most infections, cases have also increased significantly in Dutchess, Putnam and other Mid-Hudson counties as the cold weather drives people indoors.
Dutchess County’s 231 cases on Wednesday was its highest one-day total since Jan. 11, and Putnam County’s 84 cases on Dec. 10 its highest tally since Jan. 23.
As of Wednesday, Dutchess was averaging 150 cases a day in December, compared to 13 in July, and Putnam 54 versus 4.4 in July.
As of Monday, 72 percent of residents in Dutchess and 77 percent in Putnam had received at least one vaccine dose.
Despite the rising caseloads, state Sen. Sue Serino joined Molinaro and Odell in criticizing the mask mandate. A Republican whose district includes the Highlands, Serino said on Dec. 10 that Hochul’s decision “blindsided” businesses and requires them “to police the behavior of their customers or face arbitrary fines.”
“Our small businesses are just starting to get back on their feet, and this mandate will be detrimental to all those who were looking toward the holiday season to help keep their doors open,” she said.