NY Confirms 2nd South African Variant Case as Reopening Hits Crucial Week

New York is taking some of its most significant reopening steps to date this week; a major one came Tuesday, when Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden hosted fans for the first time since March 8, 2020

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What to Know

  • Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden hosted fans Tuesday for the first time in nearly a year, as small crowds were able to see the Nets beat the Sacramento Kings in downtown Brooklyn, while the Knicks fell short against the Golden State Warriors at MSG
  • The two matchups were as symbolic of the tragic breadth of the pandemic as they are of the national effort to emerge from it; no states have lost more people to COVID than California and New York
  • Gov. Cuomo has said for months that testing is the key to faster reopenings of entertainment, offices and more before vaccination reaches critical mass; he says NY can't stay closed for that long

New York state reported its second known case of the South African variant Tuesday as the number of detected U.K. variant cases soared to 154, 54 percent of which are in the five boroughs, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Both of the recently detected South African variant cases involve Nassau County residents, Cuomo said. That strain, which involves different mutations on top of the ones present in the U.K. variant, has now been confirmed in 14 states. The CDC still only counted 136 cases of the U.K. variant in the Empire State, and didn't count the second South African case yet either in Tuesday's update.

Viral mutations are a matter of course -- as a virus spreads, it makes copies of itself and each version is a bit different than the one before, experts say. As the number of infections increase, so do the number of mutations.

Overall, vaccines are expected to work on the strains that have emerged and those that will over time, though these more contagious strains have intensified concerns about the risk of more rapid viral spread at a critically vulnerable time in the vaccine rollout.

With new COVID-19 variants from the U.K., South Africa and Brazil now spreading, doctors are rushing to vaccinate as many Americans as possible before more mutations arise. Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a regional director of One Medical, joined LX News to talk about why vaccines are so important right now and how she encourages her patients to overcome their skepticism about it.

The latest concerns come as New York entered a critical reopening stretch this week. It took one of its biggest steps yet Tuesday night, when the Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden hosted fans -- albeit a limited number of them -- in their arenas for the first time in nearly a year.

Fans were able to see the Nets beat the Sacramento Kings in downtown Brooklyn, while the Knicks fell short against the Golden State Warriors at Madison Square Garden. It marked the first time either venue had fans in the stands since March 8, 2020.

The two matchups were as symbolic of the tragic breadth of the pandemic as they are of the United States' effort to emerge from it, featuring teams from New York and California, the hardest-hit COVID states in America. The two states have lost more people to coronavirus than any other states in the U.S. California surpassed New York earlier this month for the tragic distinction as the deadliest COVID state.

Imagine if every single seat in Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center were filled. That wouldn't be enough to cover even half the number of lives the two states have lost to coronavirus, a tragic combined toll that is now nearly 90,000.

Declaring New York state's demonstration with the Buffalo Bills an "unparalleled success," Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday he will extend the testing- based program to any large stadium or arena later this month. That means fans who provide a negative PCR test within 72 hours of an event will be able to attend music shows and performances as well as baseball, soccer, football and basketball games. Arenas can open to the public on Feb. 23.

Cuomo announced the planned reopening of large stadiums and arenas earlier this month, citing ongoing progress in the state and city's coronavirus numbers and the "unparalleled success" of his January pilot program with the Buffalo Bills. Pre-game COVID testing is the crux of the reopening.

Certain rules and restrictions apply to start, Cuomo said. Fans must provide a negative PCR test within 72 hours of an event; they'll be rapid-tested again once they arrive at the stadium, just as was the case with the Bills' games. The second test returns results within about six minutes. Staff must be rapid-tested as well.

Only arenas with more than 10,000-person total capacity can reopen at this point; a strict 10 percent capacity limit applies. Venues must submit plans to the State Department of Health for approval. Core mitigation efforts like masks, assigned seating to ensure social distancing and temperature checks are mandatory.

The United States' death toll climbed past 500,000, according to a count by NBC News. NBC New York's Adam Harding reports.

Roughly 2,000 fans were expected to attend Tuesday night's Knicks game, and only 300 at Barclays Center. Madison Square Garden will have an encore on Friday, that time featuring a hockey match between the Rangers and Boston Bruins. The Nets host Orlando and Dallas on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, again with fans allowed to be in the stands.

The in-game experience will be quite different from pre-pandemic times. All concession stands will be closed. Food and drinks will be brought directly to fans in specialized seating. In Brooklyn, Barclays turned some of its seating areas into mini-suites. There are seating bowls with bar stools and a couch and plexiglass walls on either side to essentially create a little bubble.

The Nets and Knicks will host fans for the first time in about a year, and families are about to be able to visit nursing homes again. John Chandler reports.

Going to a game isn't cheap, either. The bare minimum cost to attend Nets games right now is $200, just for the costs of the tests. And that's completely separate from the cost of the ticket. Still, it's a critical first step.

For his part, Knicks Head Coach Tom Thibodeau said the team was thrilled for the opportunity at Madison Square Garden.

“We understand how important our fans are and certainly appreciate all the support that they’ve given us," Thibodeau said in a statement. "We’re looking forward to the day when The Garden is full, but we’re excited to have our fans in the building - they’re an important part of our organization.”

As COVID restrictions continue to be relaxed in New York City, winter weather across the country hampered efforts to open vaccination sites. Of those that have stayed open, many continue to face supply problems. NBC New York's Andrew Siff reports.

Fans will also be able to attend music shows and performances as well as baseball, soccer and football games at those high-capacity venues, which are critical to ensure social distancing. That's why Broadway is off the table for now.

New Mets' majority owner Steve Cohen hopes to have Citi Field, which is currently being used as a city-run mass vaccination site, on board next. He said at the time of Cuomo's announcement he'd like to host fans for the 2021 season home opener against Miami on April 8, albeit it at significantly limited capacity.

The Yankees have also welcomed Cuomo's decision but has yet to elaborate on any potential plans to host fans when their season begins. That stadium is also being used as a mass vaccination site, serving Bronx residents only at this point.

Large New Jersey venues will be able to welcome back fans starting next week as well, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday. Strict COVID rules similarly apply in the Garden State, though the governor has not made testing a requirement.

Erica Byfield reports from New Jersey where Gov. Murphy has upped capacity at large venues and religious institutions

Not sure how the process works? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here

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

Cuomo has said for months that testing is the key to reopening entertainment and sports venues, offices and more before vaccination reaches critical mass. He says New York can't stay shut down for the many more months it could take to hit that number. The low threshold for herd immunity, he says, is 75 percent.

As of Tuesday, New York state had administered more than 2.2 million first doses, 91 percent of the total first doses state healthcare distribution sites have received. About 1.3 million people have been fully vaccinated. That's less than 7 percent of the state's population.

The governor hasn't provided guidance as to whether fully vaccinated people would be able to attend events at venues like Barclays without being tested.

Now that over 44 million Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, questions rise for those who are wondering what activities are safe to do and what the timeline to normalcy is.

Mayor Bill de Blasio from seeming freshly optimistic Tuesday, saying that the city will be "playing some strong catchup" now that Pfizer and Moderna have finally delivered vials that had been delayed by weather — giving the city a much-needed boost. As of Tuesday, the city had 98,299 first doses on hand -- a seemingly low amount for a city that did more than 55,000 first shots in a single day last week but a windfall compared to the fewer than 1,000 first doses it had on hand through the weekend. To date, the city has administered more than 1.5 million total doses, including more than a half-million second shots.

Johnson & Johnson also made a bold new promise Tuesday, saying they expect 20 million doses to be delivered by the end of March. The mayor said he thinks that vaccine will "be the difference-maker and supercharge our effort."

Non-NYC residents eligible for vaccination in the city account for a quarter of those fully vaccinated, meaning the percentage of New York City residents who have gotten both shots is less than 5 percent of the five boroughs' population.

There was also some good news for those who help New Yorkers (and everyone else in the city) get around: A vaccination hub dedicated to MTA workers, including bus and subway operators, opened in Brooklyn Tuesday.

Later this week, New York City middle schools bring students back to class for the first time since mid-November. Indoor dining in the five boroughs, which only was permitted to resume last Friday for the first time since mid-December, will see their capacity limits rise to 35 percent, mirroring neighboring New Jersey, this coming Friday. Nursing home visits will also be able to return at that time.

The developments come as both New York and New Jersey continue to see ongoing declines in COVID case, hospitalization and death rates from the latest post-holiday surge. In New York, hospitalizations have dropped to just below 6,000, a nearly 3,300 patient decline from the holiday spike peak on Jan. 19.

The daily death count, which lingered in the triple digits for more than two full months starting Dec. 17, has fallen below 100 for four straight days, with Cuomo adding another 86 fatalities to the ineffable toll on Tuesday.

Positivity rates have dropped across the board as well. In New York City, new cases over the last seven days are down 22 percent over their weekly average for the prior four weeks. Hospitalizations are down 40 percent in that time, while confirmed COVID deaths have dropped about 25 percent in that same period.

Statewide, new case averages are down 14 percent this week compared with the average two weeks earlier, according to New York Times data. Hospitalizations are down 20 percent and deaths have dropped 24 percent over the same time.

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


New Jersey's three core COVID metrics are also down by double-digit percentage points from their average two weeks ago, Times data shows.

The drops at the national level are even more dramatic. Still, the overall cost to date remains staggering. The U.S. has reported more than 28 million cases and topped a once-unthinkable 500,000 virus deaths since the pandemic started.

President Joe Biden called the U.S. topping 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths a "truly grim, heartbreaking milestone" during a ceremony at the White House Monday night. He told the nation that “to heal, we must remember.”

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