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New York, Illinois, Massachusetts loosen mask requirements

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A move to let the vaccine-or-mask rule expire could give a boost to New York businesses that have allowed employees to work remotely as opposed to wearing a mask all the time at the office.&nbsp;File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/0a7a6de596200c4033182e61d76b247d/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
A move to let the vaccine-or-mask rule expire could give a boost to New York businesses that have allowed employees to work remotely as opposed to wearing a mask all the time at the office. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 9 (UPI) -- New York, Illinois and Massachusetts all announced plans to ease mask mandates on Wednesday.

Citing "major improvement" in COVID-19 numbers, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday lifted the state's "mask-or-vaccine" requirement for indoor businesses.

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The rule, which mandates that workers either be vaccinated against the coronavirus or wear a mask at all times while on the job, will be dropped effective Thursday, Hochul said in a briefing.

Since the peak of the Omicron surge on Jan. 7 when 90,000 state residents tested positive in a single day, "we've witnessed a 93% drop in cases and are now below where we were [before the surge]," the governor said.

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"That is what we were watching for, that is what we were waiting for, and it's finally happening," she added.

Hochul instituted the mask-or-vaccine rule on Dec. 10 amid a wild surge in cases driven by the Omicron coronavirus variant. The move triggered a wave of criticism from the state's businesses and from political opponents who complained it was confusing.

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Some businesses in more conservative parts of the state ignored it altogether.

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Despite the opposition, Hochul extended the mandate twice and again defended it as she announced its lifting.

In early December, the governor said, "we saw how quickly Omicron was spreading, studying what was happening around the globe and saying this was coming our way -- we know this is coming to New York and we need to be prepared for that."

"It was a strong action to take at the time -- we heard a lot about it. But I again stand behind that as a way to not have to shut down businesses when this variant ended up spreading like wildfire," she added.

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New York's seven-day average of new cases stood at 51 per 100,000 residents on Dec. 10 when the mask-or-vaccine rule was implemented. It peaked at 382 per 100,000 a month later and has now dipped to 35 per 100,000, according to state health officials.

The move to let the rule expire could give a boost to New York businesses that have allowed workers to work remotely as opposed to wearing a mask at the office.

"People are operating fine remotely and they just don't want to come back to the office wearing masks," said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of Partnership for New York City, according to The New York Times. "The feeling is they might as well be on Zoom.

A mobile COVID-19 testing site is seen on Tuesday in New York City's Times Square. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
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"Assuming it's safe, employers would be glad to get rid of the mask mandate and hope that it will encourage a broader return to the office."

New York schools, meanwhile, are still under a mask mandate until at least Feb. 21. On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said his mandate for schools will end in March.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has said that mask guidance has not changed and they should continue to be worn "in areas of high and substantial transmission."

"That is essentially everywhere in the country in public indoor settings," she said, according to WABC-TV.

In Illinois, Gov. JB Pritzker said the state is seeing "the fastest rate of decline in our COVID-19 hospitalization metrics since the pandemic began" as he announced the state would lift its indoor mask mandate beginning Feb. 28.

The change affects malls, restaurants, bars and other places of business, but mask requirements for schools will remain in place and will be addressed separately, Pritzker said.

"We still have sensitive locations of K-12 schools, where we have lots of people, who are joined together in smaller spaces, and so that's something that will come weeks hence," he said.

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Pritzker added that local jurisdictions and businesses can still implement more restrictive masking rules.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday also announced the state will lift its mask mandate for schools on Feb. 28.

"Our kids have had to put up with a lot of disruption, a lot of time alone, and has suffered a real learning loss over the past two years. There's no debating those points, no matter where you stand," he said. "From free and convenient testing to highly effective vaccines and breakthrough treatments, everyone now has the tools and the knowledge to stay safe with respect to COVID."

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