ALBANY – At a time when businesses are struggling to sustain their customer base and employees, the state has put them on the front lines of requiring the wear of masks to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The mandate has in many cases led to tensions between employees and citizens who oppose masking, said Frank Kerbein, director of the center for human resources at the Business Council of New York State.
“Telling people, ‘if you don’t do what I’m telling you …’ has a business chilling effect,” Kerbein told CNHI on Thursday.
Nonetheless, he added, New York companies are “trying their best to get a mandate that is really unenforceable in many situations”.
According to the mandate given by Governor Kathy Hochul a week ago, people over the age of 2 are required to wear a face mask in all indoor public spaces, with the exception of companies that have implemented a licensing policy that requires proof of Covid vaccination. The policy runs until January 15, but could be extended if the recent surge in infections continues to weigh on hospital capacity.
Kerbein said it was “unfair” to employees to push them into a position where they have to enforce the mandate. Hochul, he said, “calls on companies to be the state police in enforcing this mandate, and that really is not our job. We don’t have the ability to do that.”
The governor signaled at a COVID-19 briefing that due to the rise in infections in the state, it may be necessary to change the current definition of vaccination to one that certifies that a person has also received a booster dose.
“I’m just sending the message now: prepare yourself for it,” said Hochul at an event at which Dr. Mary Bassett, who took charge of the state health commissioner two weeks ago, was with her.
Hochul, a Democrat, said she wanted the policy to be “more thought out” before it was officially announced, then stated, “We’ll probably get that out shortly.”
Defending the mask policy from criticism from some business owners and district officials, the governor said, “This is a healthcare crisis and people are going to die.”
She also warned that some people “underestimate” the virulence of the newly documented Omicron variant at their own risk.
Omicron has been detected in several New York counties, and transmission rates could be higher if the Delta variant is overtaken, which is currently the dominant strain behind the rapid surge in hospital admissions, Bassett said.
Omicron has been described by infectious disease specialists as both highly transmissible and immunevasive. According to the medical authorities there, the variant is now spreading rapidly in all five districts of New York City.
The Ministry of Health has restricted voting procedures in 32 hospitals where available beds are becoming scarce due to a sharp increase in Covid admissions.
Hochul elaborated on why state health inspectors were not being used to ensure mask compliance, and said those staff were busy helping with ongoing vaccination efforts.
“The best way to do this is through self-assertion,” said Hochul, noting that her government is keen to avoid “heavy hands”.
District leaders, who say they will play no role in enforcing the mask order, Hochul said she hopes the deteriorating public health outlook will motivate them to “change their minds.”
How the mandate is exercised by local government varies greatly from state to state. New York City is taking an aggressive approach to enforcing vaccination and mask compliance and is threatening companies with fines for failing to comply.
“We will have inspectors working at full speed,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters in Brooklyn.
There, the city government has issued a vaccination ordinance for private employers. Should such a directive be extended to the entire state, it would likely result in job losses and serious business challenges, Kerbein said.
A total of 762 New Yorkers are being treated in intensive care units for COVID-19 infections, according to state data released on Thursday, 433 of whom are breathing with the help of a ventilator.
The state recorded 53 additional deaths from infection, with a total of 60,152 deaths reported to state health officials since the contagion reached New York early last year.