New York Region to Accelerate Reopening, Raising Hopes and Anxiety

New York and its neighbors New Jersey and Connecticut announced on Monday that they were lifting almost all their pandemic restrictions, paving the way for a return to fuller offices and restaurants, a more vibrant nightlife and a richer array of cultural and religious gatherings for the first time in a year.

The relaxation of rules starting May 19 is a testament to the fact that coronavirus cases are down and vaccination rates are rising, offering a chance to jump-start the recovery in a region that became a center of the global pandemic last spring.

New York will also bring back 24-hour service to the subway on May 17, after a year of overnight closures, a move critical for night-shift workers and a symbolic boost to a city that takes pride in a transit system that had, until the pandemic, never closed for extended periods.

“Today is a milestone for New York State and a significant moment of transition,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who made the announcement in tandem with the governors of the two other states, reflecting how the region has 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 coax back workers and tourists vital to the city’s economy and its dynamism. Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio had set a goal of July 1 for fully reopening the city.

But public health experts warned that the officials might be taking too big a risk in opening so widely so soon given the lagging rates of vaccination among some age groups and in certain parts of the city, and the spread of more contagious variants.

NYC & Company, the city’s tourism-promotion agency, however, lost no time in spreading word of the loosening restrictions.

“We are open for business and the city is reawakening,” said Chris Heywood, an agency spokesman. “The summer holds considerable promise for us. People are clamoring to make up for a year of lost vacation time.”

As the three states made their announcement, there were other signs that the nation was turning the corner in the fight against Covid-19. Significantly, the Food and Drug Administration was said to be moving toward authorizing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 12 to 15 years old by next week.

For many business owners, especially in the hospitality industry, news of the reopening was a lifeline.

Dwayne Winter, the owner of Savvy Bistro & Bar in Brooklyn, said the announcement was just the “green light” that many New Yorkers have been waiting for to get back to their lives.

“People are looking for a reason to come back,” said Mr. Winter, 37, who said that many of his customers and workers miss socializing, sitting together at the bar and pouring their hearts out. “It’s not just serving food or drinks. It’s about really becoming a friend to the community, and a confidant.”

Still, immediately restarting operations might not make practical or economic sense for some businesses, such as Broadway theaters.

Some people in the arts world said they were surprised by Mr. Cuomo’s announcement and The Broadway League said theatrical performances were still not likely to resume until September.

And many companies have said they are not bringing back many of their employees until September and are making at least some remote work a permanent feature.

After becoming one of the first places in the country to impose extensive lockdowns, New York is following states in the South and parts of the West that have already moved to reopen. But in many of the nation’s other major cities, plans for reopening have been mixed amid shifting case counts.

In Chicago, city officials have relaxed restrictions on restaurants, churches, bars and other indoor gatherings. In Anaheim, Calif., Disneyland reopened on Friday. But in Seattle’s King County, where restaurants and other businesses are still under orders to have a maximum capacity of 50 percent, state leaders are considering a plan to restore more restrictions on Tuesday amid a rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

Businesses in New York will still have to abide by federal social distancing guidelines, which recommend a minimum of six feet of space between groups. So the size of crowds will be limited by those constraints. And New York’s rules requiring masks indoors remain unchanged.

The easing of restrictions was “somewhat meaningless for restaurants at this point” because most of them would still serve significantly fewer customers than before the pandemic, said Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry group.

“It sends a shot of optimism to the restaurant industry because we’re heading in the right direction, but until the social distancing requirements are lifted, 100 percent occupancy is not going to be achieved,” Mr. Rigie said.

But there is wiggle room. Mr. Cuomo said restaurants could seat customers closer together if they put barriers between tables, and businesses would be exempted from social distancing requirements altogether if they required customers to provide proof of vaccination or negative virus test results.

The planned reopening comes as New York’s coronavirus indicators have improved significantly since cases skyrocketed after the holidays. About 1.8 percent of virus tests statewide were positive over the past seven days on average, the lowest since early November.

But the changes come as New York officials are increasingly concerned about a slowing demand for the vaccine, even as walk-in vaccinations are now widely available. Though nearly half of the state’s population, or more than 9 million people, has received at least one dose of the vaccine, vaccination rates have waned since hitting a peak in early April, Mr. Cuomo said.

Fewer young people have been vaccinated, in part because they only recently became eligible, and hesitancy remains a daunting hurdle among a significant portion of the population.

Public health officials have also said that a big reopening poses inherent risks that variants could spread and the uneven rate of full vaccination could lead to pockets of outbreaks in different parts of the region.

In New York City, 39 percent of adults were fully vaccinated and 54 percent have had a least one dose as of Monday.

Dr. Denis Nash, an epidemiologist at City University of New York, said the city’s vaccination rates did not yet support a full reopening. “It just seems poorly thought through and almost a little reckless,” Dr. Nash said, 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 also low-income pockets of the city, including swaths of South Brooklyn, where less than 40 percent of adults have gotten a single dose.

“I think that the timing is odd, given the serious decline in the rate of vaccinations,” Dr. Nash said. “Why would you want to push toward opening up when your public health situation is going in the opposite direction?”

Even so, state, city and local officials and business leaders across the region have pushed ahead with efforts to resuscitate battered industries and engineer a return to prepandemic life.

“We will continue to monitor the data as time goes on, but we must continue to increase vaccinations to make sure reopenings are safe,” Bill Neidhardt, the mayor’s press secretary, said after Mr. Cuomo’s announcement.

New Jersey is eliminating most of its remaining virus restrictions, including capacity limits for outdoor events. Indoor arenas with more than 1,000 seats will be allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.

“These are the most aggressive steps we have taken to reopen to date, and we feel confident that we can do this safely because our numbers have trended decisively in the right direction,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey said.

More than 3.2 million New Jersey residents are fully vaccinated and the state has set a goal of fully vaccinating 4.7 million residents by the end of June.

In Connecticut, where about 40 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates in the nation, Gov. Ned Lamont credited the elimination of many restrictions to “a nation-leading vaccine distribution program.”

Across the region, professional sports teams, including the Knicks and the Rangers, have already started welcoming back fans. A spokesman for Madison Square Garden Sports said that “after the overwhelming response we’ve experienced,” the Garden “can’t wait to be able to welcome more of them back.”

New York will allow large indoor sports venues to increase their capacity to 30 percent from 10 percent, while outdoor arenas can increase to 33 percent from 20 percent. Fans are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative virus test.

New York’s theaters and arts venues will also be permitted to fully reopen. Since April, live shows have been allowed only at small and medium indoor arts venues at one-third capacity or a maximum of 100 people.

But it remains unclear to what extent the city’s cultural life will immediately come back since venues typically need months to plan productions and social distancing requirements remain a logistical challenge.

“Today’s announcement, frankly, as exciting as it feels, is more frustrating than anything,” said Morgan Deane, the chair of the reopening task force for the New York Independent Venue Association. “There’s this idea that you can just open the doors and there’s a party, but that’s not the way this works.”

Actors’ Equity, a national labor group, called the news “unexpected.”

Many of the city’s museums and zoos, which were able to increase to 50 percent capacity in April, said they planned to stick to limited reopenings until tourists return in greater numbers.

Danielle Bias, the director of communications at the Whitney Museum of American Art, said the museum plans to gradually increase its capacity to 50 percent by June 1, “in a way that is safe and comfortable for visitors and our staff.”

The decision by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway system, to restore 24-hour service was an answer to a question many New Yorkers had been asking: Would round-the-clock service ever restart? Up until last year, New York was among a handful of cities that never closed its public transit for an extended period.

Kathryn Wylde, the president 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 cautioned that there would be a long road back.

The government shutdowns imposed last year were a mandate, while the announcement on Monday amounted to more of a request. “People are nervous about everything in their lives,” Ms. Wylde said. “It’s just going to require rebuilding confidence.”

Reporting was contributed by Sarah Bahr, Gillian Brassil, Joe Coscarelli, Matthew Haag, Patrick McGeehan, Sharon Otterman, Sean Piccoli and Tracey Tully.

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