ALBANY (AP) — Lieutenant Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday the state has the authority to mandate masks at schools.
Hochul, a Democrat, is set to take office as New York’s first female governor on Aug. 24, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo will resign in the wake of an independent investigation that found he sexually harassed at least 11 women.
Her assertion about masks in schools is in contrast to guidance from Cuomo, who earlier this month said he lacks the legal authority to impose mask mandates on his own.
“In a matter of days, I’ll be able to say we will have mask mandates,” Hochul said in Queens Wednesday. “I just don’t have that authority at this time, when I’m not going to overstep.”
Hochul said that nearly all school leaders and superintendents she’s spoken with support a mask mandate in schools. And she said the state could end up lifting a statewide school mask mandate in parts of the state with lower positivity rates.
“Mask mandates are something that the Department of Health has the authority to call for,” Hochul said, later adding: “I believe that we’ll need mask mandates for children to go back to schools and that’ll have to be universal, it’ll be statewide.”
Lawmakers this year let Cuomo’s emergency COVID-19 powers expire in light of investigations into allegations that the governor has abused his executive power, including by sexually harassing women.
This summer, Cuomo’s administration decided not to release long-promised back-to-school COVID-19 guidance — which school leaders had expected to include recommendations about mask-wearing.
Many school leaders have argued that the state Department of Health still has the power to protect public health by requiring masks in schools. Supporters of a mask mandate have pointed out that all children under 12 aren’t yet eligible for vaccination, and that wearing a mask can help protect students, staff and families at a time of heightened COVID-19 transmission.
But Cuomo earlier this month argued that any mask mandate would be up to lawmakers.
Cuomo’s office didn’t immediately respond to request for comment Wednesday.
The seven-day average of COVID-19 infections per-capita is roughly seven times higher now in New York than this time in 2020.
The state says about 115 people with confirmed COVID-19 have died in hospitals and nursing homes in the seven days through Tuesday. That’s more than double the state’s tally of 47 deaths for that period in 2020.
Hospitalizations are up to 1,888 confirmed COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday, up 38% from the previous Tuesday. New York last saw more than 1,800 patients on May 12.
The number of new infections began surging in July, but there are signs it’s slowing: about 30,000 people have newly tested positive for COVID-19 in the seven days through Tuesday, an increase of 15% from the previous week.