NEW YORK CITY (WROC) — New York state’s indoor mask or vaccine requirement for indoor businesses and venues will be lifted effective Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced during a Wednesday COVID-19 briefing.

Shortly after the state’s announcement, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz confirmed that the county’s own mandate will be lifted as well.

Niagara County also provided an update on Wednesday. On Thursday, the county will lift its mask mandate for county-operated buildings. Court system buildings are excluded from this.

The state mask requirement for schools, airports, planes, some health care facilities, and other settings, however, will remain in effect, according to Hochul. She said masking in schools will be reevaluated in the first week of March, when there is a “strong possibility” the mandate could be lifted.

Individual businesses, as well as counties and cities, are allowed to make their own decisions for masking or vaccine requirements if they choose to do so. Individuals are encouraged to continue wearing a mask in any circumstance they would feel uncomfortable without one.

“The storm clouds are parting, just as the COVID clouds are parting,” Gov. Hochul said. “Our COVID numbers are declining on many fronts.”

The state’s indoor mask mandate has been in effect since December 13 and requires masks to be worn in all indoor public places unless businesses or venues implement a vaccine requirement.

“It was a strong action to take at the time, but I stand behind what we did,” Gov. Hochul said.

In Erie County, Covid cases have dropped substantially their post-holiday record highs. Monday’s reported number of 247 new cases puts Erie County at levels seen in September and October, though there is still a long way to go. Hospitalizations in Western New York remain very high, although that is typically a lagging indicator and is expected to drop as new cases decline.

According to the governor, the mask mandate remains in effect for the following:

  • State-regulated health care settings
  • State-regulated adult health care facilities and nursing homes
  • Correctional facilities
  • Schools and childcare centers
  • Homeless shelters
  • Domestic violence shelters
  • Buses, bus stations, trains, train stations, subway, subway stations, planes, and airports

Mask requirements for health care and adult care facilities will be extended to visitors and guests, according to the governor.

“We are going to continue, for now, with health care facilities, adult care, homeless shelters, schools, and correctional facilities,” Gov. Hochul said. “I want people to know that this pandemic isn’t over, it’s not over. That is why we are going to maintain some mandates. I want people to be safe. A day doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t tell me they have long COVID. We are lifting the mask mandate for businesses, but there are vulnerabilities.”

The governor said a decisions on masks and schools and other COVID-19 protocols will be reassessed in early Marc, based on trends and projections at that time. The current school mask mandate was effective through February 21, which marks President’s Day and the beginning of a weeklong winter break for many school districts.

The governor said it was important that districts have COVID-19 test kits available for students returning to the classroom after the break on Monday February 28, and she reiterated that the mask mandate would be weighed in “early March,” without offering a specific date.

“When are school masks coming off?” Gov. Hochul said. “One week before I was sworn in, I spoke to parents, teachers, and principals. There were still talks of going remote and I said ‘no.’ Now we have vaccines available and I said these kids need to learn in a school environment to avoid all the collateral damage our kids are dealing with.

“I said ‘what is the best way to keep students in school?'” Gov. Hochul said. “Others threw in the towel, but we couldn’t do that in new York. We decided to the safest way to return to school was to have a mask requirement. The era of remote learning is over; that was the whole genesis of the school mask mandate.”

Governors of other states in the tri-state area of New Jersey and Connecticut have announced expiration dates already for mask mandates in schools, but Gov. Hochul said she wanted to review the data after the February break before making a specific determination.

“I want to ensure New Yorkers that we make decisions on the most recent data available to us,” Gov. Hochul said. “That comes after the kids come back from traveling during the break. We are going to continue on this data-driven approach that has been successful.”

New York state has seen a steep drop-off in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks: Fewer than 4,000 new cases were reported statewide Sunday, down from more than 82,000 one month prior. On Tuesday the governor reported that New York’s COVID-19 case rates have reached their lowest level since November 30, before the mask mandate was implemented.

“90,000 New Yorkers tested positive one month ago,” Gov. Hochul said Wednesday. “Now we’ve witnessed a 93% drop in new cases since then.”

Additionally for New York, Gov. Hochul reported the fewest COVID-19 hospitalizations since December 26, and the fewest COVID-19 patients in an ICU since December 20.

“My biggest nightmare was thinking that our hospitals were be overrun and we would not have the capacity of serving patients,” Gov. Hochul said. “We had a severe shortage of workers, which meant that we had bets, but we didn’t have people to care for the patients.”

The governor said there’s been a 63% drop in statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations since January 12, which gives the state and hospital systems more flexibility to move health care workers to where they are needed most.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for, for two years,” Gov. Hochul said. “We’re not done quite yet, but this is trending in a good direction.”