An appeals judge temporarily restored New York's mask mandate Tuesday, a day after a judge in a lower court ruled that Gov. Kathy Hochul's administration lacked the constitutional authority to order people to wear face coverings.
Judge Robert Miller in New York City granted the state's request for a stay of a Long Island judge's ruling while the governor's administration pursues an appeal.
Arguing before Miller on Tuesday, Judith Vale, an attorney for the state, said judge Thomas Rademaker's earlier ruling would "radically disrupt the status quo" and endanger the health of students and staff at schools.
"The order, if not stayed will allow individuals to refuse to wear face coverings in indoor public settings where the risk of COVID-19 spread is high, including in schools where many children remain unvaccinated against COVID-19," the state's court filing said.
Attorney Chad Laveglia, who brought the challenge on behalf of a group of parents, vowed to take the challenge "as far as it needs to go."
"The judge got it wrong entirely. It's so blatantly unconstitutional to grant a stay whatsoever," he said.
Monday's ruling overturning the mask mandate caused a day of confusion for school districts and parents, with some administrators quickly announcing masks would be optional and others continuing to enforce them.
"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.
The state had initially instituted a mandate in April 2020 that required people to wear masks in most indoor settings outside their home. That rule ended in June 2021 for vaccinated people. Hochul announced in mid-December, as COVID-19 infections surged in the state, that it would go back into effect for at least a month. Earlier this month, the state health department said the mandate would be in place until Feb 1.
Hochul, a Democrat, said she was confident the mandate would be upheld.
"As Governor, my top priority is protecting the people of this state. These measures are critical tools to prevent the spread of COVID-19, make schools and businesses safe, and save lives," she said after Miller's ruling.
Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt criticized Hochul for relying on mandates and said she should instead send a bill to the Legislature for debate.
"We are two years into this pandemic, and it's absurd that this administration is still ruling by mandates — which continue to cause confusion, frustration and division among New Yorkers," he said.
The Long Island judge's ruling did not stop school districts from implementing their own rules on masks.
It came as the omicron wave that gripped New York state appears to be easing. The state averaged just under 22,000 new cases of the virus per day in the seven-day period that ended Monday, down from 74,600 per day during the wave's peak in early January. Hospitalizations are dropping, too, declining 17% statewide in the past seven days.
New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta cited current public health guidance that favored masks at a time of elevated infection rates.
"In the meantime, we're looking to state health officials to set a clear off-ramp for when mask requirements in schools can be relaxed," Pallotta said, "so students, families and educators have some certainty that there is light at the end of this long tunnel."