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Siena poll finds New Yorkers divided on mask mandates

A Siena College poll finds that the majority of New Yorkers support Gov. Kathy Hochul’s decision to continue the COVID-19 pandemic-related mask mandate for schoolchildren until early March.

But the data shows that reaction to policies over pandemic-related restrictions is more complicated than that.

The poll finds that 58% of registered voters in New York back Hochul’s decision to wait until students return from their winter break next week before deciding whether to end the school mask mandate. Less than a third (30%) say the mandate should have already ended.

Siena poll spokesman Steve Greenberg said the results surprised him, partly because those who oppose masking are much more vocal about their beliefs.

“You hear, in your everyday life, a whole lot more from the folks who want the masks off than the folks who want the masks on,” Greenberg said.

But Greenberg said when you look at just the opinions of parents who have children in kindergarten through high school, they are more closely divided.

Just over half (53%) say either the mask mandate should already have ended, or want it to be lifted when schools reopen Feb. 28. Less than half (45%) say the masks should remain on for a week or so longer.

Greenberg said that split is difficult for school administrators and school board members who are trying to navigate pandemic-related rules.

“If you’re a school official, you have about half of your constituency, the parents of your students, who say, ‘Get the masks off,’ and you have about half of your constituency who says, ‘No, no, no, let’s get some more data before we make a decision on masks,’” Greenberg said. “Good luck.”

All New Yorkers remain closely divided on whether there should still be a mask mandate for indoor public gatherings, including restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. The statewide mask mandate ended on Feb. 10, and 51% say it ended at the right time or should have ended earlier. But 45% say they wish the indoor mask requirement was still in place.

While Hochul and other state lawmakers maintain they are trying to do what’s best for the health of New Yorkers during a difficult time, they are all up for election later this year, and politics can be a factor in trying to navigate policy for a pandemic-weary populace.

But Greenberg said the June primary and November general election are months away, and there’s no telling what issues will be driving voters at those points in time. He pointed out that just a few months ago, no one had ever heard of the omicron variant.

“What’s going in the world? What's inflation look like, what’s the economy look like, what do their kids’ schools look like?” Greenberg said. “That will all play into what the mood of voters is in November. And the mood of voters in February really doesn’t impact what their mood is in November.”

At least for now, the poll finds that New Yorkers are concerned about rising crime rates, with two-thirds saying it is a serious problem, and more than half (57%) saying they fear being a crime victim themselves. And 78% say inflation is having a negative effect on their finances.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.