What to Know
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo says indoor dining can return in NYC Valentine's Day at 25% capacity; he also said weddings of up to 150 people are OK starting 3/15 if guests are tested and local health dept. approves
- The number of tri-state confirmed U.K. variant cases is up to 61 (42 in NY, 11 in NJ, 8 in CT); NJ's patients range in age from 10 to 65 and include one death, though that person had underlying conditions
- Vaccines are the answers but supply has been a tri-state-wide issue; help is coming, with the Biden administration pledging to give states 16% more in weekly supply over each of the next three weeks
New York City restaurants can reopen indoor dining at 25 percent capacity on Valentine's Day, one of the busiest dining days of the year, provided current downward trends in positivity and hospitalization rates continue, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday.
He also announced that wedding receptions of up to 50 percent capacity or 150 people will be permitted in New York starting March 15, provided all guests are tested and local health officials approve. The state is developing an app that would list guests' names once they have been tested; rapid tests are the suggested means.
"So no pressure but just an idea: Get engaged on Valentine's Day when restaurants reopen, and March 15th you can have the wedding with 150 people," Cuomo said.
That reopening step for weddings was born out of the success the governor says the state saw by allowing fans to attend two Buffalo Bills home playoff games earlier this month with strict testing and contact tracing rules. He believes that rapid pre-testing will be the key to eventually reopening more venues, including Broadway and baseball stadiums, before vaccination reaches critical mass.
Both highly anticipated announcements come two days after Cuomo hinted of more reopening measures in the near future when he declared "the holiday surge is over" as he lifted most of the state's micro-cluster zone restrictions.
"As data on infection rates and hospitalizations continue to improve, we must begin taking steps to jumpstart our economic recovery as long as public health can be protected," he said Friday. "This is a great development, but we cannot become complacent now - we must all continue to do our part to keep beating back COVID so we can continue re-opening our economy and get back to normal."
All of these developments, Cuomo noted, could easily be rolled back if the facts change -- as in, if a more contagious strain becomes more prevalent and the numbers start to trend back the other way or hospital capacity becomes endangered. Restaurants in New York City know the tightrope all too well.
The weeks-away return for indoor dining in New York City will mark the first time the five boroughs have served dine-in in two months. Cuomo implemented the latest citywide ban in mid-December as numbers rose post-Thanksgiving and threatened to do so further, with Christmas and New Year's Eve gatherings expected to compound a worsening situation.
Indoor dining had only returned in New York City in late September from its March shutdown. It was restricted to 25 percent capacity through its brief fall shelflife, while the rest of the state continued serving indoors at 50 percent capacity.
In New Jersey, indoor dining has been limited to 25 percent capacity statewide since it returned in September. Asked after Cuomo's announcement on New York City Friday whether he would consider expanding the cap any time soon, Gov. Phil Murphy said that's a move he'd consider soon -- if the numbers keep declining.
Cuomo has been cautious about easing any coronavirus restrictions in New York City amid the pandemic, saying its density and now the threat of more contagious variants make the five boroughs more vulnerable to rapid infection spread.
The limited return of indoor dining in New York City will be a boon for struggling restaurants that have taken the most creative measures just to survive the winter. With the coldest air of the season moving in Friday, the revenue generation from al fresco this weekend will likely be paltry at best. Some restaurant owners say 25 percent indoor dining isn't enough to make ends meet either.
To those business owners, Cuomo said, "Twenty-five percent is better than zero." He also vowed to continue to increase capacity if the numbers keep improving.
The head of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents the restaurant industry, has repeatedly accused Cuomo of discriminating against the city in terms of capacity limits and other requirements while other regions have looser virus rules and higher hospitalization and positivity rates.
Executive Director Andrew Rigie did so again Friday, saying in part, "Restaurants in the city are ready to safely open now. Unfortunately, once again the state's standards are being applied inequitably in the five boroughs without a transparent and data-driven system for further reopening the city's restaurant economy. These actions raise legal and moral concerns and extend unique economic challenges on the city's battered restaurants and bars, which shed more than 140,000 jobs over the past year due to the pandemic and related restrictions."
Cuomo would defer, once again, to his earlier statements on the unique challenges New York City faces as far as the risk of viral spread. To critics of the timeline like Rigie, the governor said the roughly two-week notice "doesn't only give us more time to stamp out the virus even further, but also gives restaurants ample notice to begin preparing for a reopening."
Across the state, restaurants and advocates have also been pushing for Cuomo's 10 p.m. bar and restaurant indoor curfew to extend to midnight. Some on Long Island argued Thursday that all a 10 p.m. stop does is send "people away from our restaurants to house parties where social distancing can't be enforced."
Cuomo has said contact tracing data shows 74 percent of COVID spread has been coming from smaller indoor gatherings, while only 1.4 percent of infections are traced back to restaurants and bars.
Still, he doesn't appear open to any change in the curfew at this time: "We're trying to keep it to just actual eating as opposed to the restaurant turning into a bar."
Pressed Friday to comment on the issue for the third time in as many days, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he had spoken to Cuomo several times over the course of the week and deferred the entirety of the decision to the governor. De Blasio said he felt it was critical to strike the right balance between public health and economic desperation in this uncertain period of the pandemic, when concerns of highly transmissible variants are on the rise and the vaccination process is still young.
The latest progressive discussions come as Cuomo declares New York's "holiday surge is over" -- and projection models predict the downward trajectory in positivity rates and new cases will continue. The increases in hospitalization and death rates have been on the decline over the last two weeks; those two metrics will be the last respective two to climb down the curve after new case spikes.
According to New York City data, total cases across the five boroughs are down 4.2 percent over the last seven days compared with the weekly average for the month prior, while hospitalization numbers are down 5.4 percent. Confirmed deaths are more or less flat over the same time period.
Statewide, new case averages over the last week are down 20 percent over the period two weeks prior, New York Times data shows. Hospitalizations are flat and deaths are down 2 percent and 1 percent respectively, the Times says -- a much lower increase from recent weeks and an improvement over just the last day.
The state's positivity rate Friday was 4.65 percent, Cuomo said -- the lowest number since Dec. 11. It has seen declines for 21 straight days and is expected to continue on that trend, the governor said, citing predictive modeling outcomes.
Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region
Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here
Long-term, state and city officials say the vaccination program is the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. But it's a long tunnel. States have struggled with federal supply problems from the start, and while President Joe Biden's pledge to boost weekly allocations by about 16 percent for each of the next three weeks has been excitedly welcomed by governors and others, the impact of that three-week increase as far as expediting the process will likely be fairly minimal.
As of Friday, New York state has used 100 percent of the first dose allocation it has received from the federal government since Week 1 of the vaccine rollout, amounting to more than 1.7 million shots, Cuomo said. Vaccine supply is still a week-to-week operation and hubs are advised to only schedule appointments for the doses they know they will receive. The state is now beginning to use the 250,400 doses that are scheduled to arrive this week, the governor added.
The additional doses the Biden administration pledged to provide weekly over the next three weeks will also help, though it's not clear when those are set to arrive.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
New York City has been accelerating the pace of its rollout over the last few weeks especially and now has administered nearly 750,000 total doses, more than the total population of Washington, D.C., Mayor Bill de Blasio pointed out Friday. Right now, the city has less than 37,055 first doses left on hand. De Blasio said Thursday that Cuomo approved 18,000 reserved second doses for first dose use, which expanded the supply a bit on top of the new shipments that arrived.
New Jersey has dosed fewer people than New York City has by about 25,000, a fact Murphy attributes to limited supply and a weekly federal allocation of less than half what is delivered weekly to New York. Across the river, Cuomo and de Blasio also agree that limited federal vaccine supply has hampered their rollouts.
That said, they expect the process to ramp up considerably under the Biden administration -- and say they are ready to get as many shots in as many arms as possible as soon as the desired supply is there. It's not clear when that will be.
Most of de Blasio's goals for his final year as mayor of New York City focus on that vaccination program. In his pre-recorded State of the City address on Thursday, he also focused on the city's overall recovery, including plans to bring city workers back to their officers by May, vaccinate 5 million people by June, fight climate change and racism and reopen all schools in person by September. His determination to set and achieve "aggressive goals" comes as he failed to deliver on the last goal he set: a million vaccinations in the city by the end of January.
New York City and New Jersey Vaccine Providers
Click on each provider to find more information on scheduling appointments for the COVID-19 Vaccine.
Data: City of New York, State of New Jersey • Nina Lin / NBC
All of these plans could be in jeopardy if a more contagious variant like the U.K. strain leads to an exponential rise in cases at the current stage of the vaccine process. The CDC has said it could come the predominant strain in the U.S. by March -- and with that could come yet another dreaded COVID spike in the spring.
Nationally, the number of children infected by COVID-19 is increasing -- and experts are concerned more contagious strains like the U.K. one may be to blame. Connecticut's Department of Health has warned schools to be prepared for the possibility they may have to move fully remote come March if a more contagious strain becomes more prevalent, according to a letter from one superintendent.
Thus far, Connecticut has confirmed eight cases of the U.K. variant, while New York's count is up to 42 confirmed cases across nine counties. New Jersey confirmed its first two cases last week and added another nine this week, including a fatality in a person with underlying conditions. Only two of New Jersey's patients, who range in age from 10 to 65, had any nexus to travel.
Like New York, hospitalization rates and new daily case totals continue to decline and the rate of transmission in the Garden State is also below 1.0, Murphy said Friday. He also noted ongoing reasons for caution, though -- and said an interstate youth indoor sports competition ban would remain in effect within the confines of New Jersey even if governors of other states involved opt to let it expire, which it is scheduled to do on Saturday. The idea is to limit places for spread, he said.
Limiting potential places for viral spread has once again become paramount with the emergence of the U.K. variant locally at this vulnerable time. That strain is just one of three highly contagious variants driving concerns locally and nationally. Other more transmissible strains include the Brazilian variant, which was first identified in the U.S. earlier this week, and the South African strain, the first two U.S. cases of which were also detected this week.
The two people found with the South African variant in South Carolina didn't know each other and had no recent travel history, leading the new CDC chief to say Friday, "The presumption is, at this point, that there has been community spread of this strain." She called that "concerning."
Of the multitude of variants that have emerged, Dr. Anthony Fauci says the latter is the one he is most concerned about because lab tests have shown it can diminish the efficacy of the vaccines approved to date. Moderna says it is developing a second booster shot to improve its vaccine efficacy on that strain.
Johnson & Johnson, which revealed trial results for its single-dose vaccine on Friday, says its shot has proven effective in the U.S. but less so in South Africa. On Friday the company said it was 72 percent effective at preventing COVID here, and 85 percent effective in preventing the most serious symptoms (compared to Pfizer and Moderna, both at roughly 95 percent effective).The company says it will file an application for emergency use soon in the U.S. and then abroad.
Despite some concerns, Fauci and other experts believe scientists have options aplenty to make adjustments to maintain the effectiveness of vaccines against new strains and ones that will emerge over time. In the meantime, the best protection is for the public to continue with proven mitigation efforts, he says.
Overall, the new strains do not appear to be more lethal, though there has been some changing evidence around that as far as the U.K. strain is concerned. They are definitively more transmissible, officials and public health experts say.
More transmissibility means more cases, which will lead to some increase in hospitalizations by default and ultimately, more coronavirus deaths -- for a country that already leads the world in them. The U.S. has reported more than 430,000 virus-related deaths and surpassed 26 million cases Friday since the start of the pandemic.
January has now overtaken December as the deadliest month of the pandemic for the U.S. so far. The new head of the CDC said Wednesday the U.S. could hit a total of 514,00 deaths by Feb. 20. Globally, the number of COVID-19 cases has topped 100 million, while worldwide deaths have crossed the 2.1 million mark.