Republicans angry as New York keeps school mask mandate despite ruling

Republicans in New York reacted furiously on Tuesday after state officials told school administrators to continue enforcing a mask mandate for students and teachers despite a judge overturning it, causing confusion as some districts rushed to make masks optional.

Lee Zeldin, a US congressman from Long Island, addressed the governor he hopes to replace in November.

“Kathy Hochul is once again arrogantly shooting from the hip,” he said, “intoxicated on power and causing mass confusion. This isn’t leadership. It’s inconsistent, unscientific, ego-driven narcissism. I wonder where she learned that from? Andrew Cuomo 2.0!”

Hochul replaced Cuomo last year, after the long-serving Democrat was forced out over allegations of sexual harassment.

On Monday, ruling in a case brought by a group of parents, Judge Thomas Rademaker, a conservative from Long Island, said the governor and state health commissioner did not have authority to issue a mask mandate without legislative approval.

The mandate “is a law that was promulgated and enacted unlawfully by an executive branch state agency, and therefore void and unenforceable”, the judge said.

The battle mirrors skirmishes on a national level between the Biden administration and conservative states and judges, up to the supreme court in Washington.

After the state education department said it would appeal, a spokeswoman, Emily DeSantis, said: “While these legal steps occur, it is [the department’s] position that schools should continue to follow the mask rule.”

On Tuesday the state attorney general, Letitia James, said she would challenge the ruling.

“We’re appealing last night’s decision that struck down the mask mandate in New York. We will continue to do everything in our power to protect New Yorkers from Covid-19,” the Democrat said.

But some administrators immediately made masking optional for students and staff.

“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, in the New York City suburbs of Long Island, said on its website.

In April 2020, New York state instituted a mandate that required people to wear masks in most indoor settings outside the home. That rule ended in June 2021 for vaccinated people.

In mid-December, as infections surged, Hochul said it would go back into effect. Earlier this month, the state health department said the mandate would be in place until 1 February.

In a statement after the Long Island ruling, Hochul said, “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. We strongly disagree with this ruling, and we are pursuing every option to reverse this immediately.”

The ruling came as the Omicron wave that gripped New York state appears to be easing. The state averaged about 23,400 new cases a day in the seven-day period that ended on Sunday, down from 74,600 a day in early January. Hospitalizations are dropping, too, by 17% statewide in the past seven days.

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