New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday the end of her state's mask mandate for most indoor public places, citing “tremendous progress” with Covid-19 cases and hospital admissions in decline after the Omicron surge.
Several other Democrat-run US states have announced plans to lift mask mandates in indoor places and schools, as coronavirus infections decline, though this is against US government guidance.
The announcements signal a move towards a policy of permanently accepting Covid-19 as part of everyday life.
In New York, the Democratic governor intends to let the mask mandate, which has been challenged in court, expire rather than seeking to renew it on Thursday.
“Given the declining cases, given the declining hospitalisations, that is why we feel comfortable to lift this in effect tomorrow,” Ms Hochul said.
Federal mandates stipulate that masks are required in healthcare facilities and schools as well as on public transport, but Ms Hochul said local cities, counties and businesses can impose their own requirements for other areas.
A public school mask requirement remains in place and Ms Hochul announced a Covid testing plan for children returning from school holidays.
“Individuals who continue to want to wear masks can continue to wear masks,” she said.
Ms Hochul called the general mask mandate temporary when she imposed it on December 31 as the highly contagious Omicron variant threatened to strain healthcare facilities.
“I will always, always retain the flexibility to make adjustments as necessary,” she said of the possibility to bring the mandates back.
“I want people to know this pandemic is not over.”
Officials in several other Democrat-led states — New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Delaware and Oregon — announced on Monday that they were lifting mask mandates for schools and other public settings in the coming weeks.
In all those instances, authorities cited the receding Omicron-fuelled wave of Covid-19 infections, hospital admissions and deaths that began sweeping the US during the year-end 2021 holiday season.
US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr Rochelle Walensky told Reuters on Tuesday that with cases still high nationwide, “now is not the moment” to drop mask mandates in schools and other public places.
The relaxation of masking rules signals an inclination by politicians to take pandemic-weary residents off an emergency footing. Covid-19 has killed more than 900,000 people in the US and is expected to hit one million within months.
California Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Monday evening that the state's indoor mask mandate would end for vaccinated residents on February 15.
California's “case rate has decreased by 65 per cent since our Omicron peak. Our hospitalisations have stabilised across the state”, Mr Newsom tweeted.
Mr Newsom's announcement came after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that children and staff would not need to wear masks in schools from March 7.
“This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgement that we can responsibly live with this thing,” he said, referring to the coronavirus.
Agencies contributed to this report