New York and its neighbors New Jersey and Connecticut announced Monday that they are lifting nearly all of their pandemic restrictions, paving the way for a return to fuller offices and restaurants, more vibrant nightlife and an array richer in cultural and religious gatherings for the former. time in a year.
The relaxation of rules from May 19 is a testament to the fact that coronavirus cases are on the decline and vaccination rates are increasing, offering a chance to re-start the recovery in a region that became a center of the global pandemic in the spring latest.
New York will also bring back the 24-hour subway service on May 17, after a year of overnight shutdowns, a crucial decision for night workers and a symbolic boost for a city that prides itself on an in-transit transportation system. common which had, until the pandemic, never closed for long periods.
“Today is an important milestone for New York State and an important time of transition,” said Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, who made the announcement in tandem with the governors of the other two states, reflecting the way whose region tried to coordinate its response. to the public health emergency.
Mr. Cuomo, in announcing the sweeping changes, sought to accelerate New York’s rebound and bring back workers and tourists essential to the city’s economy and vibrancy. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio set a target for July 1 to fully reopen the city.
But public health experts have warned officials could take too great a risk by opening up so widely so soon given the lagging vaccination rates among certain age groups and parts of the city, and the city. spread of more contagious variants.
NYC & Company, the city’s tourism promotion agency, was quick to spread the word about the easing of restrictions, however.
“We’re open for business and the city is waking up,” said Chris Heywood, a spokesperson for the agency. “The summer is very promising for us. People are clamoring to make up for a year of lost vacation. “
When the three states made their announcement, there were other signs the nation was taking a turn in the fight against Covid-19. Significantly, the Food and Drug Administration is reportedly moving towards approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 by next week.
For many business owners, especially in the hospitality industry, the announcement of the reopening was a lifeline.
Dwayne Winter, the owner of Savvy Bistro & Bar in Brooklyn, said the the announcement was just the “green light” many New Yorkers were waiting for to get their lives back.
“People are looking for a reason to come back,” said Mr. Winter, 37, who said many of his customers and employees lacked socializing, sitting together at the bar and pouring out. “It’s not just about serving food or drink. It really is about becoming a friend of the community and a confidant.
Yet immediately restarting operations may not make practical or economic sense for some businesses, such as the Broadway theaters.
Some people in the arts world have said they were taken aback by Mr. Cuomo’s announcement, and the Broadway League has said theatrical performances are unlikely to resume until September.
And many companies have said they won’t be bringing back many of their employees until September, and at least making remote work a permanent feature.
After becoming one of the first places in the country to impose extensive lockdowns, New York is following southern states and parts of the west that have already moved to reopen. But in many other major cities across the country, plans to reopen have been mixed, given the evolving number of cases.
In Chicago, city officials have relaxed restrictions on restaurants, churches, bars and other indoor gatherings. In Anaheim, California, Disneyland reopened on Friday. But in Seattle’s King County, where restaurants and other businesses are still under order to have a 50% maximum capacity, state leaders are considering a plan to reinstate more restrictions on Tuesday amid a increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
Businesses in New York City will still need to adhere to federal social distancing guidelines, which recommend a minimum of six feet of space between groups. The size of the crowds will therefore be limited by these constraints. And New York’s rules requiring indoor masks remain unchanged.
The easing of restrictions was “somewhat insignificant for restaurants at this point” because most of them would still serve far fewer customers than before the pandemic, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance , an industrial group.
“It sends a dose of optimism to the restaurant industry because we are moving in the right direction, but until social distancing requirements are lifted 100 percent occupancy will not be met,” he said. said Mr. Rigie.
But there is room for maneuver. Mr Cuomo said restaurants could bring customers closer if they put barriers between tables, and businesses would be completely exempt from social distancing requirements if they required customers to provide proof of vaccination or results. negative viral tests.
The planned reopening comes as New York’s coronavirus indicators have improved dramatically since cases exploded after the holidays. About 1.8% of viral tests statewide have been positive in the past seven days on average, the lowest since early November.
But the changes come as New York officials are increasingly concerned about a slowdown in vaccine demand, even as walk-in vaccines are now widely available. Although nearly half of the state’s population, more than 9 million people, have received at least one dose of the vaccine, vaccination rates have declined since peaking in early April, said Mr. Cuomo.
Fewer young people have been vaccinated, in part because they only recently became eligible, and reluctance remains a major obstacle among a significant portion of the population.
Public health officials have also said that a large reopening carries inherent risks of the spread of variants and that the uneven rate of full vaccination could lead to pockets of epidemics in different parts of the region.
In New York City, 39 percent of adults were fully immunized and 54 percent received at least one dose on Monday.
Dr Denis Nash, an epidemiologist at the City University of New York, said the city’s vaccination rates did not yet support a full reopening. “It just seems ill-considered and almost a little reckless,” said Dr Nash, adding that as a result the city could see spikes in hospitalizations and deaths.
Vaccine coverage remains low among some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, Dr Nash said, including those over 85, and there are low-income pockets of the city as well, including parts of South Brooklyn. , where less than 40% of adults have contracted a single dose.
“I think the timing is strange, given the dramatic drop in immunization rates,” said Dr Nash. “Why would you want to push for openness when your public health situation is going in the opposite direction?”
Despite this, state, city and local government officials and business leaders in the region have continued their efforts to resuscitate struggling industries and organize a return to pre-pandemic life.
“We will continue to monitor the data over time, but we must continue to increase vaccinations to make sure reopenings are safe,” said Bill Neidhardt, the mayor’s press secretary, after Mr. Cuomo.
New Jersey is removing most of its remaining virus restrictions, including capacity limits for outdoor events. Indoor arenas with more than 1,000 seats will be able to operate at 50% of their capacity.
“These are the most aggressive steps we have taken to reopen to date, and we are confident that it is safe to do so as our numbers have moved decisively in the right direction,” Governor Philip said. D. Murphy from New Jersey.
More than 3.2 million New Jersey residents are fully immunized, and the state has set a goal of fully immunizing 4.7 million residents by the end of June.
In Connecticut, where about 40% of the population has been fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the country, Governor Ned Lamont attributed the removal of many restrictions to “a leading vaccine distribution program “.
Across the region, professional sports teams, including the Knicks and Rangers, have already started welcoming fans again. A spokesperson for Madison Square Garden Sports said that “after the overwhelming response we have experienced,” the Garden “looks forward to being able to accommodate more.”
New York will allow large indoor gyms to increase capacity by 10% to 30%, while outdoor arenas can increase from 20% to 33%. Fans must show proof of vaccination or a negative viral test.
New York’s theaters and arts venues will also be allowed to reopen completely. As of April, live performances are only permitted in small and medium-sized indoor arts venues at one-third capacity or a maximum of 100 people.
But it’s unclear to what extent the city’s cultural life will return immediately, as venues typically need several months to plan productions and social distancing requirements remain a logistical challenge.
“Today’s announcement, frankly, exciting as it sounds, is more frustrating than anything,” said Morgan Deane, chair of the New York Independent Venue Association’s reopening task force. “There’s this idea that you can just open the doors and there’s a party, but that’s not how it works.”
Actors’ Equity, a national labor group, called the news “unexpected.”
Many of the city’s museums and zoos, which were able to increase capacity to 50% in April, said they plan to stick with limited reopening until more tourists return.
Danielle Bias, director of communications at the Whitney Museum of American Art, said the museum plans to gradually increase its capacity to 50% by June 1, “in a manner that is safe and comfortable for visitors and our staff.” .
The decision by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which manages the subway system, to restore 24-hour service was a response to a question many New Yorkers were asking: Would 24-hour service ever restart? Until last year, New York was one of a handful of cities that have never shut down transit for an extended period.
Kathryn Wylde, chair of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group, said the lifting of restrictions sent a strong signal about the city’s future, but warned it would be a long way back.
Government shutdowns imposed last year were a mandate, while Monday’s announcement was more of a demand. “People are nervous about everything in their lives,” Ms. Wylde said. “We’re just going to have to regain confidence.”
Reporting was provided by Sarah Bahr, Gillian Brassil, Joe Coscarelli, Matthew Haag, Patrick McGeehan, Sharon Otterman, Sean Piccoli and Tracey Tully.