What to Know
- New York City schools will adjust physical distancing rules for in-person instruction in accordance with new CDC guidance issued on Friday, with students allowed to three feet apart rather than six
- The mayor also announced families of pre-K through elementary school students who had previously opted for their children to learn remotely can change their learning model to allow them to return to the classroom
- NJ and CT took significant reopening steps as well, with New Jersey lifting indoor dining capacity limits to 50 percent, among other increases, and Connecticut eliminating most capacity restrictions entirely, while also opening vaccine eligibility to people age 45-64
Increased capacity limits at restaurants across the tri-state area close out another grand reopening week that featured some of the region's biggest recovery steps yet, while a surprise Friday announcement from the CDC could change the make up of schools nationwide.
New York City schools will adjust physical distancing rules for in-person instruction in accordance with new CDC guidance issued on Friday, the mayor said at a surprise afternoon briefing. The announcement comes hours after the agency said students could sit 3 feet apart in classrooms, down from the 6 feet that had been the standard health recommendation.
Students should still be kept the usual 6 feet away from one another at sporting events, assemblies, lunch or chorus practice, the CDC said.
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The news comes just days before New York City is set to reopen school buildings for high school students. Up to 55,000 high school students (about a fifth of those enrolled) are expected to return to physical classrooms in the school system's 488 high schools in two weeks, including the new schools chancellor's son.
The country's largest school district will give more students the opportunity to return to school buildings in the coming weeks, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio added. Families of pre-K through elementary school students who had previously opted for their children to learn remotely can change their learning model -- a first since the opt-in window closed back when virus cases were much higher.
“For parents of kids in younger grades, we are confident that we will be able to bring back a substantial number of students by the end of April,” said de Blasio.
About 70 percent of New York City’s more than 1 million public school students have elected to learn online, the Department of Education said. While it’s unclear how many will sign up to return to physical classrooms for the last three months of the school year, the mayor suggested “a lot of parents have been clamoring for that opportunity.”
The mayor hopes to bring back more students in higher grade levels as well, but said the priority will start with the youngest ages as officials continue to look at bringing everyone else back safely. New details on the opt-in window and timeline for bringing additional students back to the classroom will come in a matter of days, de Blasio said.
"Our focus on health and safety will not change with the updated CDC guidance, we will continue to follow the science," said NYC Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter.
Not all are on board with the CDC's new findings, however. The United Federation of Teachers said it would be “extremely complicated to implement such a plan in New York City public schools” in an email to members. Union President Michael Mulgrew said that the city's largest teachers union wanted to wait for further guidance from experts
"While we understand that the availability of vaccines and new information have prompted policies and guidance to continually evolve, we want to consult with our trusted medical experts and have asked them to evaluate this new recommendation," Mulgrew said in a statement Friday.
Mayor de Blasio called the CDC news a "good surprise" on his weekly WNYC call-in show, stopping short of immediately announcing any changes to in-person schooling before he could meet with city administrators and top health officials. The mayor has previously vowed to open all schools five days a week when the next school year starts in September, though he has said he expects many families will still choose online learning because of coronavirus fears.
New York City and New Jersey indoor dining capacity were boosted to 50 percent on Friday for the first time since the March 2020 shutdown, and New York restaurants outside the five boroughs jump to 75 percent capacity. The coordinated reopening is slightly different in Connecticut, where capacity restrictions lift entirely for most businesses. Bars will still be closed and movie theaters and performing arts venues will return their current 50 percent capacity limit.
But just because capacity limits are being lifted, it’s ultimately a business by business decision and some business owners say they're cautiously easing back into normalcy. Part of the new normal still includes masks and physical distancing.
"We want to be safe when we do this. Little by little, roll it out and see how it goes from there," said Jean Louis, the owner of Mecha Noodle Bar in Norwalk.
In New Jersey, other indoor gathering limits also rose to 25 from 10 on Friday, while outdoor gatherings can also double in size to 50. In addition to restaurants, recreation facilities, gyms and personal care businesses across the state can raise indoor capacity from 35 percent to 50 percent.
All three governors -- Andrew Cuomo, Phil Murphy and Ned Lamont -- have cited sustained virus declines in their respective states and an accelerated vaccination rollout in what they describe to be data-driven reopening decisions that jumpstart the economy while prioritizing and protecting public health simultaneously.
However, questions are being raised in recent days by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's team whether the governor's actions are actually in interest of the public.
As Cuomo announced a new slate of reopenings Thursday, including the return of crowds in sports stadiums and concerts, he declared, "Let's get back to life and living. It is safe."
"New York has always been smart and safe all through this. We went from the highest infection rate in the United States of America to the lowest infection rate in America," Cuomo said Thursday. "We have beaten this virus like no other state in the nation has and we've done it by being smart."
"The calibration is right," he added.
The governor cited the dramatic decline in COVID rates and an ever-accelerating vaccination effort as his reasoning for the slew of opening announcements in recent days, including the return of fitness classes in the city earlier this week and lift the state's domestic travel quarantine rule on April 1. None of that involved the input of New York City officials, according to De Blasio's press secreatary.
"It’s pathetic. They have NO communication with the city and it shows he can’t govern," said Bill Neidhardt of the embattled Democratic governor, who's currently under investigation for alleged sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
De Blasio had been asked by reporters about reopening indoor group fitness classes just a day before Cuomo's announcement of their imminent return. He said the city wasn't ready, saying those classes bring "particular vulnerabilities."
His senior public health adviser, Dr. Jay Varma, said he was concerned about the heightened risk of viral spread in such classes, where people are in close proximity indoors and "breathing heavily." Participants' masks could also be less effective because sweat could make them wet or they might fall off, he said.
The city's health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, echoed his colleague's worry, saying indoor group fitness classes "are the settings where we have seen COVID-19 spread. And those are the factors that facilitate that spread."
"The state of New York continues to make decisions without consulting the city of New York or our health experts or any locality and this is why we need local control," the mayor said Thursday. "It's just troubling to me that our healthcare team has said very clearly this is not what they would have done and the state just doesn't care. We're going to do our best to implement this rule safely because the state has the legal right to do it, but it's not what we would have done."
Cuomo said that negative COVID test or vaccination requirements will help slow the spread at the reopenings, but he planned to reevaluate the proof for larger venues in mid-May. That testing concept was the crux of his pilot program with the Buffalo Bills and the reopening of larger indoor venues like Madison Square Garden and Barclays last month.
The governor pointed to data on hospitalizations, which are down to about 4,500 statewide, a reduction from the latest admissions peak in January by more than half. He pointed to post-holiday declines in positivity rates at the state and local levels as well, though that state metric is still triple what it was in late October.
"This is a process," Cuomo said Thursday. "It's an intelligent combination of opening the economy, watching the science, watching the data."
The CDC reports the rate of cases per 100,000 over a seven-day rolling basis for all U.S. states but breaks out New York City from New York state in its reporting. As of its latest update, the CDC says New Jersey leads all states in that seven-day case rate, reporting 300 per 100,000 residents. New York City is No. 2 and New York state is No. 4.
Hospitalization and death rates from COVID, though, are substantially down in recent months. Officials say those are the most crucial metrics. New York City health leaders attributed the high plateau in cases this week to a combination of variant-related spread and the fact that younger people, who have received notorious blame nationally for flouting protocol at times and going mask-less, have not been vaccinated yet. The most at-risk populations have; the plunge in more severe COVID cases, they say, shows vaccines are doing their critical job.
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
Cuomo has said he's proceeding on a reopening course driven by data around risk factors and infection rates and will recalibrate that course if the data changes. Lately, that reopening has been a collision course between mayor and governor.
"Is this being done because of what the data and science is telling us or is this being done for political reasons?" de Blasio asked Thursday. "Because it sure as hell looks like a lot of these decisions are being made by the governor because of his political needs."
The two have long had an at-times contentious relationship, but de Blasio has been more prone to criticize his reopening and vaccination rollout measures in the last month amid sexual harassment allegations that have prompted the mayor to join others in calling for Cuomo's resignation.
Cuomo has repeatedly refused calls to resign, denying he touched anyone inappropriately and asking New Yorkers to wait for the attorney general's final report before casting judgment. That investigation will likely take two months.
Cuomo has changed his briefing routine since the firestorm erupted. His team prefaced Thursday's on-camera news conference with a no-Q&A announcement, which has been his new, albeit controversial, normal these last few weeks.
Even as the governor and mayor remain at odds over some logistics -- ones that appear to transcend the logistics associated with reopening -- the two agree on at least one key point: Take any vaccine you can when it's your turn. They all work.
Both Cuomo and de Blasio received their single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines this week before cameras. The governor did it Wednesday, while the mayor followed a day later. De Blasio's top health team, Chokshi, Varma and NYC Health + Hospitals President and CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz, all received vaccinations this past weekend. They each got a different brand to drive home the point.
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
The oft-spoken goal of herd immunity, for which Cuomo puts the low threshold at around 75 percent, remains a still seemingly far-off objective, even as the pace of vaccinations have scaled up rapidly across the board in recent weeks.
On Friday, 10 new mass vaccination centers across the state opened up, including three on Long Island and one in the city. Sen Chuck Schumer said that New York will be getting a vaccine supercharge in the coming weeks — getting 1.65 million doses a week by the end of April.
"The state and city governments did their best, but when you have one government from the production of the vaccine, distribute it to the site, it flows much more smoothly," Schumer said.
As of Friday, New York had administered at least one dose to more than 4.9 million people, almost 25 percent of the state's population. More than 2.5 million -- 12.7 percent of the populace -- have completed their shot series.
The eligibility pool, which now holds more than 12 million people, most recently expanded Wednesday. No further new eligibility dates have been set at this point in the Empire State. Ten new state-run mass vaccination sites opened on Friday.
In New York City, 1.8 million people (21.9 percent of the population) have gotten at least one dose, while more than 907,000 (10.8 percent of the population) have both.
Across the river, New Jersey has doubled-dosed more than 1.1 million people, about 12 percent of its population. Gov. Phil Murphy says the state is about 45 percent of the way to his stated goal of administering at least one dose to 70 percent of New Jersey's adult population in the coming months.
Over in Connecticut, more than 17 percent of the population is also fully vaccinated. The Constitution State ranks fifth among U.S. states in terms of population percentage fully vaccinated, according to CDC data, though state-level reporting may indicate a higher number than the federal agency's data. The state expanded vaccine eligibility Friday to people age 45 and older
Only two states -- Alaska and South Dakota -- have administered at least one dose to a greater share of their respective populations than Connecticut (27.4 percent).
Alaska became the first U.S. state to open vaccination up to all people 16 and older earlier this month. Mississippi did it this week and Gov. Lamont hopes to have Connecticut join them on April 5 under an accelerated eligibility timeline.
All three tri-state governors have said they are scaling up distribution and administration efforts exponentially to meet President Joe Biden's plan of having all U.S. adults eligible for vaccination by late May. Cuomo called achieving Biden's goal perhaps the greatest logistical undertaking of local government ever.
Nationally, about 16.2 percent of U.S. adults 18 years and older have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. Nearly 30 percent of that same population has received at least one dose, which 67.1 percent of those 65 and older have done.
The race, more of a marathon, has taken on heightened urgency in recent weeks as officials fight to maintain low hospitalization and death rates while battling to contain the spread of new cases, which top federal officials say have plateaued at a "very high" level across the country. With spring break coming up, and officials worried about lax COVID protocol among people traveling, the message is stark.
Don't let down your guard. Keep wearing a mask. Get vaccinated when it's your turn. And it doesn't matter which of the three brands you get. As New York City's health commissioner says, "The best vaccine is the one you can get now."