What to Know
- Vaccinated New Yorkers can shed their masks in most situations Wednesday, and restaurants, shops, gyms and many other businesses can go back to full occupancy if all patrons are inoculated
- That also applies in neighboring Connecticut; New Jersey lifted the same set of restrictions except for its indoor mask mandate, which Gov. Phil Murphy says he's keeping until more are fully vaccinated
- Murphy introduced new wine-based vaccine incentives Wednesday; NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has unrolled a slate of the same recently
For the first time in 13 months, more than half of New Yorkers can ditch their masks in most places indoors and out, while businesses no longer have to set capacity limits to prevent the spread of a virus that has killed nearly 590,000 Americans.
And "the city that never sleeps," forced into a year-long slumber as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked its global nightmare, might be wide awake again come summer.
Starting Wednesday, vaccinated New Yorkers can shed their masks in most situations, and restaurants, stores, gyms and many other businesses can go back to full capacity if they check vaccination cards or apps for proof that all patrons have been inoculated.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the reopening, which comes as New York's positivity and hospitalization rates drop to their lowest levels since last file, a milestone in the state's ongoing war against COVID-19.
"This means that, 399 days after New York was the first state in the country to implement a mask mandate, effective today, fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to use a face covering in most public places," he said in a statement. "New York is coming back, and it's a testament to the strength and grit of New Yorkers who banded together, stayed tough, and fought as one to defeat this COVID beast."
"The steps we're taking today don't mean that COVID has been officially relegated to the history books. We need to stay vigilant, continue to follow the safety guidelines in place, and help every single eligible New Yorker get vaccinated so that we can finally reach that light at the end of the tunnel," Cuomo added.
As Mayor Bill de Blasio later put it, "Vaccination equals personal freedom. And vaccination equals freedom from COVID for all of us."
Some of those liberties started to return earlier this week, while the biggest ones yet start Wednesday and more come before the end of the month.
Subways resumed running round-the-clock on Monday. Midnight curfews for bars and restaurants will be gone by month's end. Broadway tickets are on sale again, though the curtain won't rise on any shows until September.
Officials say now is New York's moment to shake off the image of a city brought to its knees by the virus last spring — a recovery poignantly rendered on the latest cover of The New Yorker magazine. It shows a giant door part-open to the city skyline, letting in a ray of light.
Is the Big Apple back to its old, brash self?
“Maybe 75%. ... It’s definitely coming back to life,” said Mark Kumar, 24, a personal trainer.
But Ameen Deen, 63, said: “A full sense of normalcy is not going to come any time soon. There's far too many deaths. There's too much suffering. There's too much inequality."
Last spring, the biggest city in America was also the nation's deadliest coronavirus hotspot, the site of over 21,000 deaths in just two months. Black and Hispanic patients have died at markedly higher rates than whites and Asian Americans.
Hospitals overflowed with patients and corpses. Refrigerated trailers served as temporary morgues,and tents were set up in Central Park as a COVID-19 ward. New York's hectic streets fell quiet, save for ambulance sirens and nightly bursts of cheering from apartment windows for health care workers.
After a year of ebbs, surges, reopenings and closings, the city hopes vaccinations are turning the tide for good.
More than 42% of all New Yorkers have been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, including the newly eligible 12- to 15-year-old age group. Fifty-three percent of the state's adult population is fully vaccinated, while the city hit that 50% milestone Wednesday. Statewide deaths have tolled about two dozen a day in recent weeks, and new cases and hospitalizations have plummeted from a wintertime wave.
Large swaths of the country and world are also starting to get back to normal after a crisis blamed for 3.4 million deaths globally, including more than 587,000 in the U.S.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the White House, said Wednesday that COVID-19 infections are decreasing in every state in the U.S. Fauci's statement suggests that the easing of the outbreak is being seen broadly across the country, rather than being more localized with a certain state or region responsible for the declining numbers.
In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont lifted all remaining outdoor restrictions and phased out all other remaining coronavirus rules indoors. Like New York, masks are no longer required indoors as of Wednesday but businesses can set their own rules.
New Jersey has also lifted capacity limits for indoor dining, houses of worship, retail businesses, gyms, salons, amusement parks, pools, performances and other catered events as of Wednesday. Click here for the full details on specific changes according to Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order.
Murphy is the lone tri-state holdout on the new CDC indoor mask guidelines. The governor has said he expects the Garden State could reach the point where he feels comfortable adopting the new CDC guidance "within a matter of weeks."
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
"While we have made tremendous progress, we are not out of the woods yet. The majority of New Jerseyans are still unvaccinated and we're not checking anyone's vaccine status at the door when you go to the supermarket or to a hardware store, for instance," Murphy said. "I don't know how we can expect workers to tell who is vaccinated from who isn't -- and it is unfair to put the burden on business owners and frontline employees to police every patron."
The New Jersey governor says he'll lift the indoor mask mandate when more people in his state are fully vaccinated, though hasn't yet offered a specific threshold. But he may have a date in mind.
"I've been hanging my hat on Memorial Day since December," Murphy said Wednesday, "so watch that space."
He unveiled new wine-based incentives Wednesday for those who get dosed at some point this month, a program similar to the one he did with breweries earlier.
Murphy also put up a private dinner at the governor's household in Drumthwacket or Island State Park in a lottery for those who have had at least one dose. People qualifying who are age 18 and older can win that dining opportunity along with a guest of choice. And he said every New Jerseyan who has been fully vaccinated by July 4, including those who have already gotten fully immunized, can earn free, unlimited access to state parks through year's end. That campaign starts May 27.
If you've already purchased your seasonal or annual pass, no worries: You can apply to get your money back as part of Murphy's latest offering.
Some New Jersey business were mystified at the governor's comments that they can open at full capacity, yet must maintain social distancing. Some even said that would cause them to lose tables.
De Blasio and Cuomo have also debuted new incentives in New York in recent weeks to get the ball rolling faster as it relates to motivating the unmotivated, though the indoor mask divide marks the first major difference between the two states in terms of how they have unfolded their reopenings.
Many business owners expressed concerns Tuesday that New Jersey would be left behind because customers can go maskless elsewhere.
"Five miles right into Midtown Manhattan...These people are going to go into the city and have no restrictions whatsoever," said Kevin Grayson, the owner of Red, White and Pasta. "All the business I was trying to regain is going to leave the local area."
For Nelson Gutierrez, who owns two Strictly Bicycle stores —one in Fort Lee, New Jersey and the other in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards — he has to deal with two different sets of rules.
"Our customers, 80% of them are coming from New York. So they are going to come unmasked to New Jersey, but we’re going to have to follow the regulations and they then you can’t come in without a mask and hopefully they won't be argumentative," Gutierrez said.
In New York City, Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi says the risk of COVID-19 outdoors is low but he still worries about indoors, saying that the main concern is for unvaccinated people.
"This includes children as well as people for whom immunity from vaccination has not fully kicked in," Chokshi added. "I do recommend continued mask use in many indoor settings until even more people are vaccinated."
Despite that precaution, New York City is ready to wake up and Mayor de Blasio has declared it the “summer of New York City.”
Tracking Coronavirus in Tri-State
There are other signs New York is regaining its bustle. Some 80,000 city employees returned to their offices at least part time this month, joining the many municipal workers whose jobs never were done remotely.
Subway and commuter rail ridership is averaging about 40% of normal after plunging to 10% last spring, when the subway system began closing for several hours overnight for the first time in its more than 115-year history.
Shakeem Brown, an artist and delivery person who works late in Manhattan, spent up to three hours a night commuting back to his Queens apartment before 24/7 service resumed Monday. Brown, 26, said it's “refreshing” to see things opening up.
At e's Bar on Manhattan's Upper West Side, “we feel the energy” of social life ramping up, co-owner Erin Bellard said. “People are so excited to be out.”
Still, receipts at the bar and grill have been down about 35% because of pandemic restrictions on hours and capacity, she said. The impending end of the midnight curfew will give the bar two more crucial hours, and the owners are planning to survey patrons to determine whether to regain full capacity by requiring vaccinations.
The owner of another Upper West Side restaurant, Hachi Maki, said that despite the changes, masks are going to stay for at least a bit longer.
"I know there are a lot of thought processes going on with different things with the mask, I think right now we feel more safe if everyone continues wearing the mask," said Tracy Bayne. She said they will still maintain social distancing between tables and a vigorous cleaning regimen that includes a daily cleaning log. "We're happy to have more seating indoors, so we will start with that. We're going to keep up with things we've been doing."
From other vantage points, “normal” looks farther off.
The sidewalks and skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan, for instance, are still noticeably empty. Big corporate employers largely aren't looking to bring more workers back until fall, and only if they feel it's safe, said Kathryn Wylde, CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a major employers group.
“Shutting down was easy. Reopening is hard," Wylde said after a meeting last week with a group of CEOs. "All the employers say that there still is fear and some resistance to coming back.”
Besides virus fears, companies and workers are wondering about safety, she said.
Crime in the city has become a growing source of concern, but it's a complicated picture. Murders, shootings, felony assaults and auto thefts rose in the first four months of this year compared with the same period in pre-pandemic 2019, but robberies and grand larcenies fell. So did crime in the transit system, probably because of the drop in ridership.
Brandon Goldgrub has been back at his midtown office since July, but it's just in the last few weeks that he has noticed the sidewalks seem a bit crowded again.
“Now I feel it's a lot more normal,” said Goldgrub, 30, a property manager.
Visiting from Tallahassee, Florida, Jessica Souva looked around midtown and felt hopeful about the city where she used to live.
“All we heard, elsewhere in the country, was that New York was a ghost town, and this doesn't feel like that,” said Souva, 47. “It feels like a city in transition.”