When the Nets return to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center over the weekend, it could mark Kyrie Irving's first game this season in front of the home crowd, as multiple sources familiar with the matter say New York City Mayor Eric Adams is expected to lift the city’s vaccine mandate for athletes on Thursday.
Irving, a vaccine holdout, had been among the most high-profile people impacted by the city's private sector vaccine requirement. He was able to re-join the team in January but only when they played out of town games.
Fans are somewhat on the fence about allowing Irving, who has been outspoken about the COVID-19 vaccine, to finally hit the court after months of sitting home home games.
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
Some are excited about what his return could mean for the team, but still believe he should get vaccinated. Other fans said he should have let him play this whole time, since his return to the team in December.
Irving has been allowed to attend games in NYC, but hasn't been allowed to play. He has only suited up for the Nets when on the road (and not playing the Knicks at Madison Square Garden). That all could soon change, however.
"Kyrie Irving comes out on top: He gets to play without the vaccine. Whether you agree or not, he got what he wanted," said Brendan Kuty, a sportswriter for the Star-Ledger and NJ.com.
The expected reversal would also impact unvaccinated Yankees and Mets players, whose seasons begin in coming weeks. Yankees star Aaron Judge refused to directly answer a question about his vaccine status earlier this month, leading to speculation that another New York team would be hobbled by a player's refusal to get inoculated.
"It’s got to be a huge relief to sports fans, and not worry about unvaccinated Yankees and Mets players," said Kuty.
The Yankees, who open their season at home against the Boston Red Sox on April 7, said at the time that the team president was “working with city hall and all other appropriate officials on this matter.” The Yankees declined comment Wednesday.
“Really wasn’t too worried about it,” Judge said. "If the mandate is not there, it’s good for Kyrie. He can play some home games and help the Nets out a little bit.”
Adams, a Mets fan, is scheduled to make an “economic and health-related announcement” Thursday morning at Citi Field, where the Mets play, according to his official calendar that was released Wednesday night.
But there's been pushback against the sudden exemption. Staten Island Councilman Joe Borelli called the decision to let the athletes and performers be exempt "appalling. We are firing our own employees but allowing exemptions for the fancy ones."
He went on to pose the question, "What is the rationale for exempting basketball players from the city’s private sector vaccine mandate but not the ushers or janitors in the arena? There must be a compelling public interest for subverting the equal application of our laws. What is it?"
The city’s sweeping vaccine mandate for workers will still apply to people with other types of jobs, including government employees. The city suspended numerous public employees for refusing to get vaccinated, including public servants like firefighters and sanitation workers.
All employers are supposed to bar unvaccinated workers from being in shared workplaces.
Adams had said he felt the vaccine rule was unfair when it came to athletes and performers because a loophole in the measure, imposed under his predecessor, allowed visiting players and performers who don’t work in New York to still play or perform even if they are unvaccinated.
The creation of special exemptions for athletes or entertainers could potentially lead to court challenges arguing the city isn't applying the law evenly.
Adams has been rolling back vaccine mandates and other coronavirus restrictions, including on Tuesday when he said masks could become optional for children under 5 starting April 4.
Mask mandates for older children have already been removed, as well as rules requiring people to show proof of vaccination to dine in a restaurant, work out at a gym, attend a show, or go to an indoor sporting event.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made vaccination mandatory as a workplace safety rule last year, before leaving office.