New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday he is ordering all people to wear a face covering while in public as the state works to combat the nation's worst coronavirus outbreak.
The executive order will take effect after a three-day grace period, Cuomo said at his daily news conference in Albany.
In outlining a gradual reopening of businesses, Cuomo said the state is moving toward a "new normal."
"Where we're going, it's not a reopening in that we're going to reopen what was. We're going to a different place," Cuomo said.
"If you are going to be in a situation, in public, where you come into contact with other people in a situation that is not socially distanced, you must have a mask or a cloth covering nose and mouth."
More than a third of the nation's 600,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 are in New York, according to Johns Hopkins University. While the outbreak appears to be leveling off, Cuomo said roughly 2,000 new cases are confirmed in the state every day. He said the economy won't be able to make a full comeback until there's a vaccine, which scientists have said will take up to a year and a half.
"It's over when people know I'm 100% safe and I don't have to worry about this. When does that happen? When we have a vaccine?" he said. "Until you have a vaccine, until you have the medical treatment, what do you do? How are you building the bridge? Well, it's going to be a phased reopening."
Part of that phased reopening is requiring people to wear face masks, he said. Local governments would enforce the order, but fines won't be issued at this time, he said. It would apply to people on public transit, including subways and buses, as well as in public spaces like grocery stores, he said. It would even apply to people walking on the sidewalk. The covering can be a bandana or scarf as long as it covers their nose and mouth.
"You're right to go out for a walk in the park, go out for a walk because you need to get out of the house. The dog is getting on your nerves, fine. Don't infect me. You don't have a right to infect me," he said.
While Cuomo said he's not going to impose fines right now, he didn't rule out the possibility.
"Now, if they don't accept that and there's widespread noncompliance, could we go to civil penalty or could I say you can't be on the trains or buses unless you wear a mask, you could get there."
He said he hopes New Yorkers follow the rule "because it makes sense."
Cuomo's order came nearly two weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its national coronavirus guidelines to recommend wearing face coverings in public places "where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain … especially in areas of significant community-based transmission."
The CDC stressed at the time that people should maintain social distancing practices – staying 6 feet away from others in public and staying home whenever possible — even if they wear face coverings.
Health experts say there's little evidence to show that cloth coverings can protect the wearer from contracting Covid-19 from others. But they may help to prevent people with illnesses from spreading their germs.
Cuomo said that reopening commerce in his state, and the rest of the country, in the absence of a vaccine for the coronavirus would also hinge on testing people for Covid-19 and tracing the contacts of those people who test positive.
"The more testing, the more open the economy," Cuomo said.
The Democratic governor repeatedly said the federal government needs to help expand the capacity for testing, noting that there are not currently enough tests available to do the level of screening that will be needed.
"We cannot do it without federal support, and I've been saying it for days," Cuomo said. In addition to increasing test capacity, he said the federal government would have to help states fund what would be "an army" of tracers to identify people who have had interactions with infected people.