ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul has plans to quickly implement stricter COVID-19 restrictions if infections soar, including reimposing universal statewide mask mandates for New Yorkers to wear in public regardless of vaccination status, she said Tuesday.
The Finger Lakes region, which includes Genesee, Livingston, Orleans and Wyoming counties, has a COVID infection rate nearly double the state’s average of 2.34% with an average regional rate of 5.43% over the last three days.
New infections hover at around 4.27% in the Finger Lakes.
In her remarks during a coronavirus briefing in the state Capitol on Tuesday, Hochul seemed to chastise the north country where the rate of new coronavirus cases were the highest in the state at 5.3% and more than double the state’s average.
“Come on, north country — you can do better,” Hochul said. “I could find ways to make a more strict mask mandate. We have a lot of tools at our disposal.”
New York City’s rate of new virus cases is about 1.31% — below the state average, and with a far more densely populated region and high-risk rate of transmission, especially with the spreading delta variant.
Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed a statewide mandate for all New Yorkers ages 2 and older to wear facial coverings in public in April 2020. That mandate lasted until June 25. Cuomo had the authority to require masks in public spaces under his expanded executive powers granted by the Legislature at the start of the pandemic when New York City was the virus’s global epicenter.
Those powers ended with the broad mask mandate in June. Hochul does not possess the same executive authority to date, but suggested similar mask requirements for certain regions or public areas could return if COVID-19 infections increase.
Hochul attributed the disparity in COVID infection rates across the state to low vaccination rates and community trends of mask-wearing.
“When I see people wearing masks walking down the street outside when they’re not required to, I know that’s a community that’s taking it seriously,” she said. “I go to other parts of the state ... I’m the only one wearing a mask because it says they’re not required.”
Vaccination rates continue to rise in Genesee, Livingston, Orleans and Wyoming counties, but still lag statewide data.
The rate of residents with at least one COVID vaccine dose rests at 56.7% for both Genesee and Livingston counties, 51.9% in Orleans County and 50.7% in Wyoming County, according to the state’s online vaccine tracker Tuesday.
Among those eligible to receive a vaccine, those with at least a single dose include 67.7% in Genesee County, 64.8% in Livingston, 61.1% in Orleans, and 59.6% in Wyoming, according to state data.
At least 71.9% of all eligible New Yorkers, and 84.8% of state adults, have received at least one dose, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I need to start looking at the regional differences and having conversations with the leadership of those areas,” Hochul said. “My idea was to empower localities to do more because they wanted to, but I always said I’m watching closely and if we’re seeing spikes that are not good for an area, we’re going to have to take more drastic action.”
Hochul has not publicly set a threshold of what infection rate would trigger the re-emergence of a mask mandate.
Hochul met with county executives from across the state for breakfast Monday to discuss the working relationship between localities and the executive under her administration. Afterward, county officials said Hochul suggested stricter statewide coronavirus mandates if virus infections continue to climb. She also did not specify to them what level will sound the alarm to reimpose restrictions, they said.
COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths sharply increased last October through the 2020 holiday season until early January 2021. The state could see a similar spike as the more transmissible delta variant continues to spread.
Thirty-eight New Yorkers died due to COVID-19 complications Monday, with at least 56,978 confirmed virus fatalities since the pandemic began.