In his first week on the job, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman addressed the coronavirus pandemic in a way that can best be described as premature, if not downright foolhardy.
Last week, Blakeman, a Republican from the Five Towns, signed a set of three executive orders, all of which were intended to loosen state regulations whose purpose was to protect public safety during this most recent surge of infections caused by the Omicron variant.
Blakeman was clearly thumbing his nose at Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, who on Dec. 10 ordered mask wearing in public to reduce the spread of Covid-19 as it fans out like wildfire across New York state, and the nation.
Before taking office, Blakeman had said he would not enforce the public mask mandate, as required by Hochul. Then, on Jan. 6, he took this political showdown one step further when he signed a surprise executive order directing local boards of education across Nassau to vote on whether to require masks in the schools.
Refusing to enforce the mask mandate was bad enough. To require school districts to weigh in on a measure that is, incontrovertibly, intended to protect the health and safety of students — many of them unvaccinated — along with teachers and school workers, represents an abdication of his duty as county executive to protect Nassau’s most vulnerable.
It’s been a while since Blakeman, 66, has been in school, but surely he must remember the conditions in which students and teachers work. Twenty to 30 people are confined to a room for six to eight hours a day, with ventilation systems that are often decades old, unless a district has recently upgraded them. In short, students and teachers must spend hours a day within feet of one another, in rooms of stagnant air. One infected student or teacher could spread the coronavirus to dozens of people in a single day.
Why not mask up? What, precisely, is Blakeman’s point here? Anyone who enters a school must wear a mask, period.
Some parents say they worry about the potential psychological effects of their children wearing masks throughout the day. In studies since the start of the pandemic, however, children were found to be highly resilient, reporting few, if any, effects from mask wearing, and health experts across the country have weighed in, saying children are, generally speaking, doing just fine wearing masks.
At the same time, as we reported in last week’s editorial, numerous studies indicate that mask wearing does, in fact, reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
That is, there is no real downside to children wearing masks in school — and only an upside, the likely reduction of community spread of the coronavirus. Thus, it would be just plain wrong of any school district, for what could only be described as political reasons, to overturn the state’s mask mandate in a vote.
Hochul quickly weighed in on the matter last week, saying that any school district that voted to overturn the mandate, ordered by both the State Education Department and the State Department of Health, could — and likely would — face the loss of state aid for education. She was right to weigh in aggressively.
There will be those who say that the Omicron variant, according to studies, is less virulent and less deadly than previous strains of the coronavirus. They are correct. This variant is still, however, a virus with the capability to send the unvaccinated to hospitals. And people who believe that even a three-dose vaccination will entirely protect them from it should think again. The vaccinated are becoming infected as well. They might not experience the heavy symptoms that unvaccinated people do, but they can still get sick. Further, the risk of a vaccinated person being hospitalized by the Omicron variant is extremely low, but it is not zero.
The bottom line: Blakeman appears to be playing a game of political brinkmanship, which has garnered him a good amount of publicity across the state and made him something of a hero to far-right conservatives. That is why we find his first two weeks in office to be so disappointing. We honestly expected better of him. We hope and trust he will see the error of his ways and restore one of the best measures that we have to guard against the coronavirus — the mask mandate.