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State issues reopening rules for nursing home visits, movie theaters and weddings

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday visited Medgar

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday visited Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, where one of the largest mass COVID-19 vaccination sites in New York is slated to open Wednesday. The joint state and federal effort aims to give shots to 3,000 people a day. Credit: Governors office

This story was reported by Rachelle Blidner, Robert Brodsky, Bart Jones and David Reich-Hale. It was written by Jones.

New Yorkers will be able to head back to New York City movie theaters, attend indoor weddings and catered events across the state and visit nursing home residents as the state pushes to reopen from COVID-19 shutdowns, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Monday.

Starting Friday, nursing homes will be permitted to readmit visitors, potentially ending for some a painful period that left families distraught and cut off from their loved ones — and, in many cases, only able to wave from outside their windows.

Cuomo laid out guidelines to prevent a resurgence of the virus in the facilities, their communities devastated with thousands of elderly residents killed by the virus.

If the positivity level in a county is under 5% on a seven-day rolling average, no test is required to visit the nursing homes, though state officials recommend it, said Dr. Howard Zucker, the state's health commissioner.

If the county's positivity level falls between 5% and 10%, visitors must test for the virus within 72 hours before the visit, and must be negative, he said. If the county's level is over 10%, no visits are allowed, Zucker said.

The facilities can host a maximum number of visitors of up to 20% of the total number of its residents and will be expected to dedicate separate rooms for visits, he said. Visits will still be conditioned on what's proved to be a difficult standard: Nursing homes being free of COVID-19 cases for 14 days and not having to undergo outbreak testing.

"We are encouraged by what is being reported about the guidance for resuming visitation and look forward to receiving it directly from the state so we can put in place plans to reunite residents with their families," said Jody Fisher, spokesman for Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation in Commack.

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On Long Island, visits would be permitted under current conditions, since the region's seven-day average is below 5%.

Weddings and catered events will be permitted at venues, with up to 150 people allowed or 50% capacity of the site, whichever is smaller. Testing will be required before the events. The new rules for nuptials and catered gatherings go into effect March 15. Previous guidelines allowed up to 50 people.

Movie theaters in the city will be able to reopen March 5 at 25% capacity, with a maximum of 50 people. Certain pandemic mandates will be in place such as mask wearing, social distancing and having enhanced air filtration systems, but no testing will be required.

Movie theaters outside New York City were already allowed to open under those rules.

The governor is also asking school districts to report to local governments their progress in returning students to in-person instruction and how many of their teachers are vaccinated.

"We are going to notify the local districts today if they can start reporting on Wednesday and then we’ll ask them that on a weekly basis," Cuomo said. "I think we need clarity on that, because opening schools is very important for children" and has economic consequences.

Cuomo said the state lost a lawsuit from operators of billiards and pool halls, and those businesses will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity outside New York City and 35% capacity in New York City, observing distancing and mask requirements.

LI Vets home sees case decline

Six residents of the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook presented cases of the coronavirus and are now asymptomatic, its director told the Suffolk County Legislature on Monday. The nursing home previously had reported that it saw many COVID-19 deaths at the height of the pandemic and administrators had to move bodies to its morgue at night.

Cases declined significantly since the vaccine became available, falling from 45 just three weeks ago, executive director Fred Sganga said.

"If we had gotten it sooner, we probably would’ve saved some lives," Sganga said of the vaccine.

The 350-bed nursing home had 122 residents die of coronavirus-related causes, with 282 employees testing positive since March, he added.

So far, 82% of residents have been vaccinated since Dec. 28, with 9% declining and another 9% unable to take doses because they had the virus or were hospitalized at the time they were administered, Sganga said. Among employees, 47% took the vaccine.

The statewide seven-day average for positivity in COVID-19 testing was 3.52%, while the level on Long Island was 4.35%, Cuomo said. The number of new confirmed cases in test results from Sunday was 516 in Nassau, 563 in Suffolk and 3,358 in New York City.

A total of 89 people died Sunday of causes related to the virus.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday visited one of the largest mass COVID-19 vaccination sites that will be operating in the state ahead of its Wednesday reopening, a center based at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn that will inoculate 3,000 people a day.

A similar site is scheduled to open Wednesday at York College in Queens as part of the state’s efforts to vaccinate more Blacks and Latinos, who are among the groups hardest hit by the virus. The sites will be run jointly with the federal government.

'Low tide in America'

"COVID exposed low tide in America. It revealed the unacceptable disparities and injustices that have plagued our society for decades — and New York is doing everything it can to reverse those trends in the vaccination process," Cuomo said Monday.

The governor visited the site as the United States surpassed 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 — the most of any country and more than the American death toll of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.

In New York, to help ensure access to the vaccine among minorities, the new mass sites will be open for the first week to people living in certain ZIP codes where infection levels are high and vaccination rates are low. Later, they will be open to any residents of those boroughs.

Cuomo also said the MTA is launching a pilot program to expand bus service in Brooklyn and Queens so that residents can more easily travel to the sites. The state is also enlisting the help of faith leaders to convince Blacks and Latinos to take the vaccine and "to dispel rumors and myths about the vaccine itself."

The faith leaders will take part in phone banks calling residents to encourage people to get the shots.

New York runs other mass vaccination sites at locations including Jones Beach and Stony Brook University. Nassau and Suffolk counties run their own sites at locations including Suffolk County Community College and Nassau County Community College.

Cuomo made the announcement in Brooklyn as levels of virus infection are declining statewide, although New York continues to struggle to get enough vaccines to inoculate the population rapidly.

The state has seen encouraging trends recently in declining positivity rates and hospitalization levels.

Northwell Health on Monday said the number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals dipped below 1,000 for the first time since Dec. 20. Northwell said it has 998 COVID-19 patients in its system, the state's largest. Northwell registered a 9% drop in hospitalized cases within the last week alone.

Last week’s snowstorms severely disrupted New York City’s COVID vaccine program, at one point bringing the city’s supply of first doses down to less than 1,000, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.

The city will receive last week’s doses — about 170,000 — in coming days while an equal number will arrive later in the week to cover the final week of February, he said. City officials expect the vaccine supply to increase modestly next month.

"We lost a full week in our vaccination," de Blasio said, adding that the city nonetheless surpassed 1.5 million first doses administered. "But this will not stop us from reaching our goal of vaccinating 5 million New Yorkers by June."

GETTING COVID-19 VACCINES

Who qualifies for COVID-19 shots?

New York State expanded the list of qualifying residents to encompass people 65 years of age and older as well as others with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk. The state had previously expanded its vaccination program to include essential workers and people 75 years of age and older in addition to health care workers and nursing home residents and staff, among others. The supply of vaccines is limited even as more groups are added. Hospitals will continue to prioritize unvaccinated members of the first phase, focusing largely on health care workers. The following are the qualifying categories, as revised on Feb. 9.

Group in Phase 1A

The state said about 2.1 million state residents belong in this group, including:

  • Health care workers at hospitals who interact with patients.
  • Residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
  • Dentists, psychologists and others deemed health care workers with direct contact with patients.
  • Employees of Federally Qualified Health Centers.
  • EMT volunteers and staff.
  • Coroners, medical examiners, some funeral workers.
  • Staff and residents of state facilities for people with developmental disabilities, mental health care and addiction services.
  • Employees at urgent care centers.
  • Individuals administering COVID-19 vaccines, including local health department staff.
  • Staff at ambulatory centers.
  • Home care and hospice workers.
  • Residents and staff at other congregate care facilities.

Group in Phase 1B

The state estimated about 3.2 million residents belong in this group, including:

  • People 75 years of age and older.
  • Teachers and education workers, including in-person college instructors, substitute teachers, student teachers, school administrators, paraprofessional staff, support staff, contractors in schools and bus drivers.
  • First responders, including police; firefighters; state police; sheriff’s offices; county, town and village police departments, and other law enforcement offices.
  • Public safety workers, including dispatchers and technicians.
  • Public transit workers, including airport, railroad, subway, bus, ferry and Port Authority employees.
  • Corrections officers.
  • Other sworn and civilian personnel, such as court and peace officers.
  • Grocery store workers dealing with the public.
  • Individuals living in homeless shelters.

Following federal recommendations:

Added at the discretion of local governments:

  • Taxi drivers.
  • Restaurant workers.
  • Residents of facilities for developmentally disabled people.

SOURCE: New York State, Northwell Health.

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