ALBANY — New York voices are growing louder in protest to statewide COVID-19 mandates with up to 1,000 parents and caregivers of school-aged children rallying outside the Capitol over the weekend demanding face masks be a personal choice for each family when classes resume next week.

Parents came out in force from all areas of the state Sunday afternoon, marching around the building before gathering in front of the steps at East Capitol Park after The Health Department issued an emergency regulation directive late Friday requiring public and private school students, faculty and staff to wear masks inside school buildings, effective immediately.

Masks will also be required of any person age 2 and older entering a school building.

“I want to thank everybody who’s gathered here today to stand here for freedom,” Charissa Mayer, an Altamont mother of two school-aged boys running for New Scotland Town Board, said Sunday. “Freedom is the power or right to act, speak or think what one wants without restraint. ... This is not our current reality. Unfortunately, our elected officials and state local government [are doing] all they can to infringe upon our rights and our freedoms. They do not lead by example, but rather by force.

“They do not listen to the concerns of their constituents,” Mayer added. “The government works for us!”

The Health Department’s new directive was expected after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a K-12 school mask mandate and COVID vaccine requirement for teachers were imminent.

Mayer, a registered nurse, argued statewide COVID-19 mandates and regulations, and especially the most recent mask-wearing requirement violates personal rights guaranteed under the state and federal constitutions.

Assemblyman John Salka, R-Brookfield; Liz Joy, Republican candidate for the state’s 20th Congressional District; Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino and Mayer, whose two sons, 8-year-old Nathan and 10-year-old Caleb, are about to begin third and fifth grades in the Voorheesville Central School District.

Hundreds of parents, children, school board members, local officials, nurses and health workers — up to a reported 1,000 — in attendance held signs “Coercion is not consent,” “I trust Jesus, not science. Stop the shot,” “Pro-’merica, anti-vaccine mandate” and “This is your test. Wake up!”

Mayer and other state officials have been flooded with calls from parents concerned about vaccine and mask mandates, urging for a choice.

“People should have a choice and it shouldn’t be mandated on anyone,” Mayer said. “I’m a health professional and there are several health professional out there that agree with me.”

Mayer argued masks, especially cloth face coverings, are ineffective in protecting against the spread of the novel coronavirus and expressed concern about young children being forced to wear them, impacting their speech and social development or worries about getting overheated in the summer months.

Dr. Jana Shaw, professor of pediatrics and pediatric infectious disease specialist at SUNY Upstate Medical University said the health-related mandates are not made to be restrictive, but to protect the public as a whole.

The COVID-19 vaccine is not approved for children under 12, or the majority of school-aged students. Face masks, she said, citing a study by Justin Lessler with Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, are one of seven layers of protection shown to best prevent students from spreading COVID to others, or potentially high-risk parents and relatives when they come home from classes.

“Parents are saying COVID is not a problem in kids, but that is not accurate,” Shaw said Monday. “Children are less likely to seek testing and medical care because they are less likely to be seriously ill, but we know children get infected and they can get infected to similar rates as adults. Fortunately, children don’t get as sick as often as older people, but they can still transmit infection.”

Children have started to die from COVID-19 at higher rates since the emergence of the more highly transmissible delta variant, Shaw said.

Children who catch COVID can also develop serious complications and side effects if they contract the virus, regardless of their severity of symptoms, such as Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome that causes vital organs or body parts to become inflamed.

“No vaccine for children under 12 years of age means those children will be the most vulnerable to infection,” Shaw said. “We need to take every step we can in schools to mitigate the risk of infection for school-aged children, for students and staff and that means masking.”

N-95 masks protect against COVID transmission the best, compared to cloth face coverings, Shaw said, but any covering is better and more safe than none.

She compared the decision to wearing a helmet or seat belt to save a life.

“You work with the best you have,” Shaw said. “Why would you put yourself at risk when you have an option to mitigate that risk? The same principle applies here.”

Sunday’s rally was at least the fourth of its kind since June. Joy, Mayer and other parents organized a rally demanding the face mask requirement be rescinded at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Mayer chastised the state for inconsistent policies.

“The only place they have to wear a mask is in school,” Mayer continued of her young boys. “I can take them to church, the grocery store or a restaurant [without a mask]. It’s lunacy to me.”

Mayer has concerns about the COVID vaccine and impending mandates for teachers, state workers and other requirements to get the shot.

State school reopening protocols are based on COVID guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the state Education Department.

“The CDC is not a law-making branch of government,” Mayer said. “They are there to issue guidance.”

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, introduced legislation June 9 to prevent state agencies from mandating mask-wearing requirements for healthy children under the age of 18 and rescind the current rules in place in schools, summer camps and similar settings. The measure would not apply to medical facilities.

“This country was built on the constitutional freedom of choice,” Tague said Monday. “I think that parents are the bosses of their children, and they should have the right to say whether or not they want their child to wear a mask or not. When government starts to tell parents what they can and can’t do with their children, that’s a serious problem. Parents should be able to raise their children the way they see fit.”

Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, sponsors the counterpart measure in the Senate.

Democrats in the majority of both houses of Legislature have not advanced either bill, which is largely divided along party lines.

Tague, who has supported ending the statewide mask mandate for months, could not attend Sunday’s rally. The Capital Region assemblymember chairs the Schoharie County Republican Party, which held its annual barbecue during the same time.

“When we start mandating what you can and can’t do with your children, we’re no longer America,” he added. “We’re no longer the home of the brave and the land of the free when we start to trespass on people’s rights.”

Parents and student caregivers have rallied to fight COVID mask and vaccine mandates at the state Capitol in July and Sunday’s for August in addition to the two events in June. Central New York Informed, Unmask New York School Children Now, Long Island Loud Majority led Sunday’s rally.

Some health workers who are members of the state Nurses Association were also in attendance.

Subsequent rallies are planned after school resumes next week. An official date has not been set.

Mayer encouraged supporters to watch the Unmask New York School Children Now and Charissa Mayer - For New Scotland Town Board Facebook pages for details.

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