A New York State judge ruled on Monday that the state’s mask mandate had been enacted unlawfully and is now void, according to court documents.
Gov. Kathy Hochul had renewed a rule requiring masks or proof of vaccination at all indoor public places throughout the state in December, amid a winter virus surge, and said it would last a month. The state Health Department then extended the mandate an additional two weeks, to expire on Feb. 1.
In his six-page decision, State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademaker wrote that Ms. Hochul and state health officials lacked the authority to enact the mask mandate without the approval of state lawmakers, and that it violated the state constitution. Regardless of the “well aimed” intentions of state officials, such authority is “entrusted solely to the State Legislature,” Justice Rademaker wrote.
The office of the state attorney general, Letitia James, filed a notice of intent to appeal the ruling on Monday night. Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department, said the department had informed its schools that, as the legal issues are resolved, “schools must continue to follow the mask rule.”
While the ruling overturns the statewide mandate for masks in schools and public places, it does not reverse local mandates. City Hall officials, for example, said that the decision had no immediate impact on New York City’s schools since the city’s education department had its own masking policies in place before the state’s mandate.
Ms. Hochul said in a statement on Monday that her office strongly disagreed with the ruling and would be “pursuing every option to reverse this 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,” she said.
The Omicron surge has been receding in New York, but it is not over. An average of about 20,000 people in the state are now testing positive for the coronavirus each day, down sharply from the surge’s peak of 90,000 people who tested positive on Jan. 7. The positivity rate has also fallen, by half, from more than 22 percent to 10 percent.
But New York’s daily case numbers remain far higher than at the start of the surge in early December, and hospitals are still straining to treat about 10,000 Covid patients statewide. Hospitalizations have begun declining but remain higher than at any point since May 2020. More than 130 people each day have been dying of the virus statewide.
Justice Rademaker, who has run on the Conservative Party line, was elected to the Supreme Court in Nassau County in 2019. The Supreme Court in New York is the highest trial court in the state, but not the court of last resort; the Court of Appeal is the highest court.
Following his ruling, some schools districts on Long Island began telling parents that masks were optional as of Tuesday morning.
“While it is certain this decision will face legal challenges, until otherwise litigated, mask wearing will be optional for students and staff in the Massapequa Schools beginning Tuesday,” the Massapequa school district posted on its website.
The Lindenhurst school district issued a similar message on Monday night, saying that it would work in accordance with the judge’s decision.
“Until otherwise directed, the wearing of masks will be optional for all students and staff members,” the district posted on Facebook. “We are also aware that this decision will undoubtedly result in an appeal from the state, which could result in the restoration of the mask mandate until the court issues further ruling.”
The ruling was applauded by some New York Republicans, including Representative Elise Stefanik, who said in a statement that it was a “win for small businesses, parents, students, and the freedom of all New Yorkers.”
“Governor Hochul’s authoritarian mandates were crushing New York small businesses that already have faced unprecedented challenges throughout the Covid-19 pandemic,” Ms. Stefanik said. “By forcing masks on the children in our schools, these mandates have impeded the development of our next generation.”