New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is lifting a mask mandate for businesses that don’t check COVID-19 vaccination status, citing high inoculation rates and low transmissions across the state.

The rule, which Hochul implemented amid the omicron-induced surge in infections, will be dropped as of Thursday. Mask mandates will remain in place in schools, health-care facilities and nursing homes, although Hochul said dropping masks in March is a “strong possibility.”

“New Yorkers, this is what we’ve been waiting for after two long years,” Hochul said during a Wednesday briefing in Manhattan. “It is time to adapt.”

Local municipalities can continue to determine their own rules, including New York City, which requires vaccination for theaters, restaurants and other businesses. A spokesperson for New York City Mayor Eric Adams said the city will continue these requirements.

Businesses can also choose to implement their own mask rules. “We want to make sure every business knows this is your prerogative,” Hochul said.

Cases in the state have been falling rapidly, from more than 90,000 in early January to 4,281 reported Tuesday. The seven-day average of 6,790 cases through Tuesday is less than the seven days ahead of Thanksgiving, before the omicron variant was confirmed in the U.S. The positive-test rate over the last seven days is 4.36%, moderately higher than it was before Thanksgiving, but a sizable drop from early January, when it was regularly more than 20%.


“That’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for and it’s finally happening,” Hochul said, referring to the precipitous drop in cases. “Why is all this happening? Because New Yorkers and businesses stepped up and did the right thing.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations are following a similar descent. The state reported just over 5,000 patients in hospitals with COVID on Tuesday, less than half the 12,671 seen during the January omicron peak. Deaths are beginning to wane as well.

Still, Hochul has reminded the public in recent press conferences that it was only weeks ago that hospitals were “overwhelmed with patients and not having sufficient staff.”

The fall of positive COVID cases prompted other states to begin alleviating restrictions. California will end its indoor mask mandate for vaccinated individuals next week. High-risk areas such as hospitals will still require masks, and school protocols are under review.

New York’s mask mandate in schools remains in place as neighboring states have begun to ease such rules. On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the state’s school-mask mandate will lift March 7. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also recommended that the state end its mandate for schools and daycare centers on Feb. 28.

Hochul said the state would reassess mask requirements for schools in early March, following school breaks that are expected in February. She said the difference between offices and schools is that kids are in a very concentrated setting, whereas employees in businesses can achieve more social distancing. “Adults can make their own decisions,” she added.


“The best way to get kids back in school is to keep them open,” Hochul said, noting that masks will help ensure case counts remain lower in schools. “I want to strike the right balance here.”

The mask mandate in schools has faced backlash from some parents, who sued Hochul and the state health department, arguing they overstepped their authority.

The lawsuit has been making its way through state courts, with Nassau County Judge Thomas Rademaker ruling on Jan. 24 that the rule did not abide by New York’s constitution. He suggested the Hochul administration seek the passage of a law through the state legislature. The requirement has remained in place while the state challenges Rademaker’s ruling.

New York’s mask-mandate debate also reflects the broader political divide over whether such rules overstep government authority. Florida and Arizona barred cities and counties from implementing their own COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates in private businesses. Arkansas enacted a similar ruling, but it was struck down by a judge in December.

“We are continuing to proceed in court to ensure New York state still has the power to protect its citizens,” Hochul said. “We want to ensure we still have the ability to make the right decisions.”

Restaurants, property owners and other businesses across the state praised the decision to drop the mask mandate for their establishments, saying the move augured a step closer to normalcy for a city whose economy is still reeling from the pandemic.


“With the mask mandate being lifted, it’s giving a very strong signal to come back into the work environment, back into the city and participate in all the great things that New York has to offer,” said Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Co., a major New York landlord.

Only about a quarter of workers have returned to their offices in the New York metro area, according to data from security company Kastle Systems as of Feb. 2. At 8.8%, the unemployment rate in New York City remains more than double the U.S. average.

The city has only regained about 55% of the 922,000 private sector jobs lost early in the pandemic, many of which were concentrated in the entertainment and tourism industry, according to a Feb. 7 New York City Comptroller report.

Jeffrey Bank, CEO of Alicart Restaurant Group, said he hopes dropping the mask mandate will help revive New York’s economy.

“Right now is the best time to lift the mandate to help us all and tourists get back to life,” said Bank, whose group owns establishments like Carmine’s and Virgil’s Real BBQ.

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Bloomberg’s Luke McGrath, Kate Krader and Natalie Wong contributed to this report.

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