ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) — Businesses have a difficult decision to make: vax up or mask up. Monday marked the first day of a month-long mask or vaccine mandate for businesses, where patrons and employees must mask up or provide proof of vaccination.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Friday that due to rising COVID-19 rates statewide, masks will be required to be worn in all indoor public places unless businesses or venues implement a vaccine requirement.

According to state officials, this determination is based on the state’s weekly seven-day case rate as well as increasing hospitalizations. The new business and venue requirements extend to both patrons and staff.

This measure is effective from December 13 until January 15, after which the state will re-evaluate based on current conditions.

“They need to choose whether they’re going to implement a full course vaccine requirement or mask requirement,” Darlene Smith, Steuben County health director, said.

Public health departments are in charge of enforcing this new rule, but they are overwhelmed by case investigations, testing centers, and vaccination clinics.

“What they can’t do is mix and match and say those who are not vaccinated you need to wear a mask. Those of you who are vaccinated just show your card,” Smith told 18 News.

Enforcement of the mandates will also fall on businesses. Wegmans and Tops Friendly Markets imposed a mask mandate for all customers and staff.

“We are simply abiding by, as we have in the past, the mask mandate in place by the Governor.  Our associates have been masked since August and we will politely ask any customers who are medically able to do so to observe the mandate as well.  Anyone not wearing a face covering will be provided with a disposable mask along with a copy of the mask mandate as a reminder of the policy.”

Tops Friendly Markets

Local businesses are still confused and feel left in the dark. They are waiting for more guidance from local health departments and New York State.

“We’re doing no enforcement at all. We were growing how we have rolled for the last year so. If you want to wear a mask, that’s fine. If you don’t want to wear a mask, that’s fine,” Adam Bunce, owner of Turtle Leaf Cafe, added.

As for Barb’s Soup’s on Cafe, they plan to implement a mask mandate. Their staff is 95 percent vaccinated and those employees who are unvaccinated are always masked.

“I plan to put a note on the door saying that everyone needs to wear a mask until they are seated,” Barb McClure, owner of Barb’s Soups on Cafe, continued.

What exactly are the requirements?

Any person, past their second birthday and medically able to tolerate a face covering, must wear an appropriate mask while in any indoor place, regardless of vaccination status. However, businesses and venues can choose to implement a vaccination requirement, requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of entry inside the business or venue. Whichever requirement is selected, it must apply to all within the business/venue’s capacity, including staff, patrons, visitors, and guests. A business and venue cannot do a “combination” requirement. Please see below for the details of each requirement option.

Business/Venue Proof of Vaccination Requirement    

Businesses and venues that implement a proof of vaccination requirement must ensure that anyone 12 years of age or older is fully vaccinated before entering indoors. Businesses/venues can accept Excelsior PassExcelsior Pass Plus, SMART Health Cards issued outside of New York State, full-course vaccination through NYC COVID Safe app, a CDC Vaccination Card, or another official immunization record.

In accordance with CDC’s definition, fully vaccinated is defined as 14 days past an individual’s last vaccination dose in their initial vaccine series (14 days past the second shot of a two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine; 14 days past the one-shot Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine). The State also accepts WHO-approved vaccines for these purposes. Parents and guardians can retrieve and store an Excelsior Pass and/or Excelsior Pass Plus for children or minors under legal guardianship.    

Vaccines for children ages 5-11 have only been available since November 2021. Therefore, in order to enter a business or venue that implements a proof of vaccination requirement, children ages 5 – 11 only have to show proof of having had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination. 

Vaccines have been available for 16–17-year-olds since April 2021 and for 12-15-year-olds since May 2021. At the time of the determination, 63% of the 12-17 age group has been fully vaccinated in New York State.

Business/Venue Mask-Wearing Requirement    

Businesses and venues that implement a mask requirement must ensure all patrons past their second birthday and medically able to tolerate a face-covering wear a mask at all times while indoors, outside of physical eating, or drinking.  

How will these requirements be enforced? 

We expect that these new requirements will be largely self-enforcing while the State is experiencing a winter surge and as New Yorkers keep their loved ones safe over the holidays. Nevertheless, a violation of any provision of this measure is subject to all civil and criminal penalties, including a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation, and can be enforced by local health departments.

Who could receive the fine, the business or venue, or an individual in violation of the requirements?

Pursuant to regulation, individuals or business/venue entities that violate the determination are subject to a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation. Local health departments can enforce these requirements.    

Continued Masking Requirements    

Unvaccinated individuals, including those with medical exemptions, continue to be responsible for wearing masks, in accordance with federal CDC guidance. Further, the State’s masking requirements continue to be in effect for pre-K to grade 12 schools, public transit, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, nursing homes, and health care settings per CDC guidelines.    

Steuben County responded to the mandate today and said:

Since the issuance of the mask mandate by New York State via a NYSDOH Commissioner’s Determination, announced last Friday and effective today, Steuben County has had multiple conversations with state representatives and our regional partners.

In consultation with Chairman Scott VanEtten, we have communicated to state officials that this mandate would be impossible to enforce in a meaningful way without state agencies taking the lead. We have our entire Public Health department, employees from other county departments, and dozens of volunteers focused upon contact tracing and vaccination. Throughout this Delta variant surge, they have been and remain overwhelmed by these tasks and cannot absorb additional duties of mask enforcement. As such, any complaint received by Steuben County will be forwarded to NYSDOH.

That said, the NYSDOH Commissioner’s Determination is a state requirement, and as such we strongly encourage all of our valued businesses in Steuben County to comply. COVID is still surging in our communities and our hospitals are still under immense pressure, and the use of masks in indoor settings is a valuable tool to help reduce spread. Coupled with other prevention strategies, such as getting vaccinated, receiving your booster, and staying home and getting tested when sick, we can reduce spread in Steuben County.

It is vital that we all double-down on these layered prevention strategies, especially during the holiday season when we are gathering with friends and family.

Jack Wheeler, Steuben County Manager