What to Know
- Entertainment venues across New York are allowed to open at a third of their capacity, or with 100 people indoors and up to 200 people outdoors; Outdoor gathering limits expand to 200 in NJ and sports venues reopen as well
- The presence of highly contagious COVID variants has stoked U.S. concern; NJ officials outlined new virus projection models that suggest those may contribute to potential record daily cases in May
- Next week, NJ expands vaccine eligibility to people 55 and older, as well as anyone 16 and older with intellectual and developmental disabilities. NY will extend it universally to those age 16+ on April 6
Amid renewed worries about COVID-19 variants, New York City's once-bustling art and culture scene gets the greenlight to slowly return this weekend, as the state loosens restrictions on venues that have been shuttered for more than a year because of the pandemic.
Starting Friday, entertainment venues across the Empire State are allowed to open at a third of their capacity and welcome up to 100 people indoors and up to 200 people outdoors -- an increase that won't be enough to open closed Broadway theaters but could allow some small plays, concerts and performances to resume.
Capacity limits would be slightly higher — 150 people indoors and 500 outdoors — if venues can implement a system in which attendees show proof of a recent, negative COVID-19 test or vaccination before entering.
"What's great is that you bought a ticket, so there's contact tracing already available through that," said Jon Borromeo with Stand Up NY, a comedy club located in the Upper West Side.
"We're going to hear the laughter in a room, something we haven't heard in 13 months, and I'm not gonna lie, I might cry...I won't," Borromeo joked. "New York City just needs a big hug right now, or a socially distanced hug, whatever it is what we're supposed to be doing right now."
Following the state guidelines, there's only space for 45 people to physically distance inside the comedy club and it's already nearly sold out. Some of the shows around the city are completely sold out, like the "An Audience with…" performance at The Shed in Hudson Yards. Other venues say the limit capacity is not worth reopening just yet, and they're going to wait until at least 50 percent capacity is allowed.
Jerry Seinfeld planned to take to the stage Friday night alongside other returning comics. The veteran performer sold out a 7 p.m. show at the Gotham Club in Chelsea.
Also starting Friday, fans of college sports can return to the stands with capacity at large-scale venues capped at 10 percent indoors and 20 percent outdoors.
"Attendees will need to follow strict guidance to keep themselves and others safe, but they'll now be able to watch world-class performances and take part in our state's thriving arts and culture scene once again," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press release Friday, signaling he'd close out the week without making a public address.
The long-awaited reopenings come not long after Gov. Andrew Cuomo increased the limit for outdoor private gatherings at people's homes, increased indoor dining capacity, allowed indoor fitness classes in New York City, lifted quarantine requirement for domestic travelers and most recently, allowed fans at large sports stadiums. That's not all.
By Monday, the 11 p.m. statewide curfew in place for casinos, movie theaters, bowling alleys, billiards halls and gyms will end. The 11 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars as well as the 12 a.m. curfew for catered events will remain in place for now, but the governor said his health team is actively assessing the data. An updated announcement is expected sometime this month.
Cuomo made those announcements last month while citing improvements in the daily count of new coronavirus cases since January and the rollout of the vaccine as justification for loosening restrictions.
That improvement has stalled in recent weeks and the latest numbers show that COVID-19 variants are contributing to an increase in new cases.
"Since we're in the midst of March Madness let me try to put it this way – you don't stop playing defense until that last buzzer sounds. The next few weeks will be an absolutely crucial time in this public health crisis," New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said at the mayor's daily news briefing on Thursday.
"We're seeing a worryingly high level of cases. And, as we reported yesterday, new variants are making up an increasing share of those cases – over 70 percent of all specimens sequenced for the most recent week," he added.
Similar concerns were expressed in New Jersey this week, with Gov. Phil Murphy's model projections showing that increasing prevalence of highly contagious coronavirus variants could send new daily case totals in the Garden State to record levels by mid-May. But the majority of New Jerseyans (70%) won't be vaccinated until June, according to both moderate-case and worst-case models, though the dates are set two weeks apart.
Murphy said last week he would halt potential plans to further loosen restrictions because of the numbers, though he's allowing outdoor gathering limits to expand to 200 on Friday (while keeping indoor limits at 25 people). The governor also gave the green light for indoor and outdoor seating at large state venues (those with 2,500-plus capacity) at 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
Like New York, New Jersey is getting a boost in its federal weekly allocation of COVID-19 vaccines -- one up to 20 percent -- this week. The governor says that increase, along with a new FEMA-run site that opened in Newark Monday with the capacity to inoculate up to 6,000 a day, makes him confident in his state's ability to expand eligibility to the next group.
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
Starting Monday, people age 55 and older, as well as anyone 16 and older with intellectual and developmental disabilities will be able to reserve their spot for a shot. Real estate, building and home service workers will also be permitted to get vaccinated at that time, along with sanitation workers and bank tellers, accountants and other financial industry employees. Laundry service workers, utility workers and librarians round out that next-up “1C” category.
More than 4.4 million people in New Jersey have had at least one dose of the vaccine and nearly 1.7 million of them are fully vaccinated, which is more than 19 percent of the state's population, according to the latest health data.
It's not clear when the Garden State might be ready to take that universal eligibility step, but if the moves by neighboring governors are an indication, it won't be long. Connecticut allowed all adults age 16 and older to get their dose on Thursday, and starting April 6, all adult New Yorkers will become eligible.
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
Not sure how the process works? Check out our handy tri-state vaccine site finder and FAQs here
Cuomo said that vaccines are the weapons that will win the war against COVID but with 31 percent of New Yorkers having received at least one vaccine dose, and 18.5 percent fully vaccinated, the state is a long way away from the 75 percent needed to reach herd immunity.
One in three Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC announced Friday. One year after the pandemic hit the U.S., more than 100 million have received their shot and over that group is fully vaccinated, the agency reported.
Fully vaccinated people can gather with other fully vaccinated people with fewer precautions, but health officials urged people to remember that most people are still unvaccinated, and the vaccine doesn't fully take effect until 14 days after the last dose.
The CDC also issued new guidance around domestic travel for people that have received all their shots. Those fully vaccinated people can travel within the U.S. without getting tested for the coronavirus or going into quarantine afterward while sticking to its guidance for unvaccinated people to avoid unnecessary travel.
President Joe Biden has pledged to have enough vaccines for all U.S. adults by the end of May. The U.S. government has ordered enough two-dose shots from Pfizer and Moderna to vaccinate 200 million people to be delivered by late May, plus the 100 million single-dose shots from J&J.
As reopenings take place or are on the horizon, de Blasio took the time during his Thursday to tell New Yorkers that they should stay remain vigilant and safe since the pandemic is still ongoing, particularly as the religious holidays of Holy Week and Easter as well as Passover.
"It's an important time in terms of faith. It's an important time in terms of family," de Blasio said. "But it is also a time to be safe. We love this time of year and we love when our families gather but we have to do it the right way."
De Blasio also announced a new vaccination site opening on the South Shore of Staten Island at St. Joseph-St.Thomas Parish, as the tri-state continues to try to not only halt further spread of the coronavirus, but also rollout vaccines. This site will open on April 8. Additionally, de Blasio announced pop-up NYCHA vaccine sites that will be up and running from April 1 to April 4.
The city hit a daily vaccination record on Thursday administering 93,380 doses, the mayor said Friday during his weekly WNYC show. De Blasio also teased an update next week on the city's "two-case" rule that closes entire school buildings if two positive cases are found.
Vaccinations appear to be lowering the overall rate of hospitalizations and deaths, but some of those hospitalization metrics have been rising. New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli on Wednesday shared data that shows a 28 percent jump in new admissions statewide in the last two weeks. The most worrisome date was a 31 percent increase in hospitalizations among those age 20 to 29, a 9 percent increase in those 30 to 39 and a 48 percent increase among those 40 to 49, she said.
Hospitalizations for those older than 70 have been markedly less, 7 percent for the 70-79 group and 1 percent for those older than 80, Persichilli added, possibly a reflection of early vaccine eligibility targeting elderly populations.
"It is believed that the uptick in cases is due primarily to more contagious variants, for example, B.1.1.7, the U.K. variant, coupled with less cautious behaviors," the state's health commissioner said. "There is still an uncertainty ahead with this relentless virus that continues to change. All of the country is in a race to vaccinate as variants contribute to the surges."
The heightened prevalence of more transmissible variants first identified in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa has officials at all levels of government and as high-ranking as the president warning states not to loosen restrictions too aggressively. A half-dozen states have already lifted mask mandates and more are planning to do so in the coming weeks in spite of pleas to Americans from President Joe Biden and CDC boss Dr. Rochelle Walensky to keep their guards up.
While virus mutations are a matter of course and most are not considered threats to public health, the trio from the U.K. (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351) and Brazil (P.1) are considered "variants of interest" because evidence has shown they are better able to evade immune responses and may increase risk of reinfection.
In its latest update, the CDC said nearly 12,000 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been reported in 51 states. The head of the agency said Wednesday that variant now accounts for 26 percent of U.S. cases and is starting to become the predominant strain. Preliminary data from the U.K. suggests that strain could also be more lethal than others, though experts say that needs further study.
The South African and Brazilian strains are less common, accounting for 312 cases in 31 states and 172 cases in 22 states, respectively, the CDC says.
New Jersey tracks seven known variants at the state level. Those have been found in more than 700 positive COVID samples, though the U.K. strain is by far most common (606 known cases). Ten cases of the South African (2) and Brazilian (8) variants have been identified, while the so-called "New York City" variant, known as B.1.526, was detected in 112 samples. Unlike in New York, New Jersey's travel quarantine has always been an advisory, not an enforceable order.
Connecticut has reported nearly 400 cases of the U.K. strain locally and two and seven of the other two variants of interest. New York state hasn't updated its public accounting of variant data with any regularity, but in the city, health officials say they have found the U.K. variant in at least 590 people. That last update on March 23 marked a 35 percent increase from the previous data release.
City health officials said earlier this month that two variants -- the U.K. one and one that originated in Washington Heights last year (B.1.526) -- accounted for 51 percent of all samples studied in the most recent week of full data.
The vast majority of variant samples identified were the Washington Heights variant, known as B.1.526. That strain was present in nearly two of five cases studied overall. The U.K. strain, B.1.1.7, has thus far been reported in about 590 New York City residents, a 35 percent increase from the previous data release. One Brazilian strain case and two South African variant cases have been found, though the prevalence of all three is likely much higher than reported.
Overall, health experts say they are expected to work on the variants that have emerged and those that will emerge over time, though some warn viral mutations could render current vaccines ineffective in a year or less, according to CNBC.