NYC Movie Theaters Reopen Friday as Tri-State Eases COVID Restrictions

"I have a wait-and-see approach on the question of how much things are being expanded," Mayor de Blasio said. "Once it's a state decision, it's our job to do our best to make it safe ... but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right thing to do going forward"

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What to Know

  • The slower-than-desired national vaccine rollout got a major boost this week; the first Johnson & Johnson doses were shipped and Merck has signed on to help its rival manufacture more faster
  • Gov. Cuomo says domestic travelers to NY no longer have to quarantine or test-out 90 days post-full vaccination; event spaces can reopen at 33% capacity as of April 2; NYC movie theaters open Friday
  • In NJ, Gov. Murphy says wedding receptions can resume at 35% of a venue's indoor capacity up to 150 people (up to 150 max outside); sleepaway camps can also resume operations this summer

Nearly a year after Gov. Andrew Cuomo shuttered movie theaters statewide as part of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 in indoor settings, crowds were able to kick back before the big screen in New York City once again Friday.

Billiard halls also reopen Friday across the state. In New York City, capacity is limited to 35 percent. That cap is at 50 percent for halls outside the five boroughs.

The usual safety protocols of masks and social distancing are enforced and capacity is limited to 25 percent, with a max of 50 people permitted in assigned seatings per screening. That's in line with the rules for movie theaters in the rest of the state, which was allowed to bring cinema back in-person before Halloween.

Certain air filtration standards apply, and moviegoers must keep their masks on except for when drinking or eating. Those who head to the theaters will notice a slew of other, smaller changes as well done to ensure safety, like staff — who are not yet eligible for vaccination — filling drinks for moviegoers, limited menus, reduced touchpoints and cashless transactions preferred.

Many theaters reported having all their shows sold out on Friday, but given the capacity limitations, isn't much of a surprise.

With more people getting vaccinated by the day and COVID rates continuing to fall, more businesses are being allowed to reopen or increase their capacity, especially in Connecticut. NBC New York's Marc Santia, Lynda Baquero and Natalie Pasquarella provide team coverage.

Cuomo had eased restrictions last fall to allow movie theaters to re-open at limited capacity in most counties outside the city, but sustained declines in virus numbers have led to a number of recent reopenings across the tri-state area.

Later this month, residential and social gathering limits will be doubled at least, while smaller event, arts and entertainment venues can return on April 2.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont made significant reopening moves Thursday, announcing capacity limits for a slew of businesses — including restaurants — will be lifted on March 19. More aggressive reopening measures have been taken elsewhere across the country this week, despite warnings from the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said earlier this week she was "really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19." (And those comments came before the governors of Texas and Mississippi abruptly tossed mask rules.)

Walensky said she feared COVID rates had leveled off at too-high numbers from the latest surge. She also said new variants are a "real threat" to progress.

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Rochelle Walensky says she is concerned about the leveling off in recent declines of COVID-19 cases across the country.

When asked on his weekly WNYC radio segment Friday if he thought it was a good idea to be reopening places like movie theaters in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio echoed the concerns he gave last month. He said the jury is still out as far as whether the decision is a smart one and again cited the unknowns around the variants, which the city is aggressively investigating.

He declined to answer directly when asked if he would feel comfortable going to the movies in the city right now or having his children go.

"I have a wait-and-see approach on the question of how much things are being expanded. These are decisions made by the state," de Blasio said. "Once it's a state decision, it's our job to do our best to make it safe, and I have confidence our inspectors are doing their job. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right thing to do going forward. We're going to be watching the variants really closely."

High schools in the city will get word of their reopening by next week, de Blasio teased during the segment. Although details of what to expect were slim from the mayor, one reports suggests those grade levels could be back in school by the end of the month. Chalkbeat published details Friday of a draft letter from the Department of Education eyeing a return to high school in-person learning by March 22. A spokesperson said the final return date has not been finalized.

After Connecticut announced it would be lifting many capacity limits, some New Jersey businesses now want to know when their restrictions will be lifted too. NBC New York's Brian Thompson reports.

Murphy, who reopened large sports and entertainment venues in New Jersey Monday and said two days later wedding receptions could return, has also expressed concern about potential viral spread linked to the variants. The governor has said more than once he would have moved to raise indoor dining capacity and relax other COVID restrictions earlier if not for the variant unknowns, and said he was unaware Connecticut would be lifting restrictions so suddenly.

The prevalence of the variants has intensified considerably in the tri-state area and across the U.S. in recent weeks -- or health officials and scientists are at least finding more cases. New Jersey became the latest U.S. state Thursday to report a case (two of them) of the Brazilian coronavirus variant, which is considered to be of equal scientific "interest" to the more widely reported upon U.K. and South African strains but has been detected to a much lesser degree in America so far.

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday said new data indicated the existing COVID-19 vaccines were still effective against new variants. “Right now from the reports we have literally as of today, it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against them with the big caveat that you want to play close attention to it,” Fauci said.

According to the CDC's latest variant report, the U.S. has detected only 13 cases of the Brazilian variant, known as P.1, in six other states aside from New Jersey: Maryland, Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Alaska. The only other states to have multiple cases like New Jersey are Minnesota (2) and Florida (5). The CDC updates its variant data only three times weekly, so federal reporting often lags individual state reporting on newly detected variant samples.

No details were immediately known as it relates to New Jersey's cases other than both were found in Hudson County. Gov. Phil Murphy and his health team did not appear to have a COVID briefing on the schedule for Friday as they have lately.

Ultimately, tri-state health officials seek to make clear two key points around the variants: First, not all variants are matters of public health concern. Most are just that -- variants. The city's health department is expected to put out a report soon analyzing whether a new strain that appears to have originated in Washington Heights last year is simply "different," de Blasio said Friday.

Some variants are described as being "of interest." Tracking-wise, the CDC is looking into three of those -- the Brazilian, U.K. and South African strains. New York has reported more than 150 U.K. variant cases to date, mainly in the city, while New Jersey and Connecticut have detected 134 and 42, respectively. Nationally, the CDC has confirmed nearly 2,700 U.K. variant cases in 48 states.

Both New York and Connecticut have reported cases of the South African variant, two on Long Island and one in Fairfield County, as of the latest reports. Those are among 17 states to have reported nearly 70 such cases to date, the CDC says.

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.

Second: Vaccines are expected to work on the variants that have emerged and those that will over time. A top New Jersey disease specialist recently demonstrated why that is the case using a "mittens" and "hands" analogy.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine raised some eyebrows among Americans eligible to be vaccinated when they saw that that single-dose shot was less effective overall in clinical trials. New York City experts say that's because those trials were conducted in some countries where "variants of interest" have become more prevalent, while other manufacturers' trials came too early to account for the developments in scientific analysis around variants.

De Blasio said this week he personally would be getting the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine, in part to show it's just as safe and effective as the others. On Friday, the Javits Center began administering the newly received single-shot doses during their overnight appointment slots.

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


While much remains unknown pending further study on a subject matter that didn't exist a year and a half ago, officials say they're confident core mitigation efforts like masks, hand washing, socially distancing and staying home when sick prevent variants from spreading the same way they proved to curb spread of the original dominantU.S. strains. If anything, the emergence of the variants only makes those efforts -- and the vaccination rollout -- more important.

Leaders across the tri-state area are drumming that last point home at every opportunity they receive -- and establishing sprawling distribution networks to meet or even exceed the demand once vaccine supply is sufficient to serve it.

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

New York City says it has the capacity to dose a half-million people a week and while supply hampered efforts early, the rollout has accelerated dramatically even in just the last two weeks. As of Friday, the city had administered more than 2.2 million total doses. That includes at least one first dose to 1.5 million people, about 14.4 percent of the city's population. More than 7 percent of the five boroughs' population has now been fully vaccinated, state data shows.

Statewide, about 16.9 percent of the population has had at least one dose (more than 3.3 million people), while nearly 9 percent of New Yorkers have completed their vaccination series. With 75 percent considered the low vaccination threshold for herd immunity, according to Cuomo, New York still has a long way to go.

More than 10 million New Yorkers are currently eligible for the vaccine, and that number could expand should de Blasio seize on Cuomo's looming loss of pandemic emergency powers and change distribution rules in the city.

Over in New Jersey, nearly 790,000 second doses have been administered, which would translate to full inoculation for about 8.9 percent of the state's population. Murphy was on hand to witness some of the state's first Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccinations Friday, which he described as a "huge day" in the fight.

Connecticut meanwhile is leading the tri-state, and most of the country, with its impressive vaccination record. So far, nearly a quarter of the state's population has already received at least one dose.

Nationally, 16 percent of the population has had at least one dose, while about 8.4 percent of Americans have both. President Joe Biden has said the U.S. expects to have enough vaccine for all adults in May, two months earlier than anticipated.

America has lost more people than any nation in the world to the virus, doubling the losses in the second-deadliest country (Brazil) with a toll of more than 524,000 as of Friday, according to Johns Hopkins. It also has reported the most cases -- more than 29 million, more than two and a half times India's 11.2, which is No. 2.

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