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Cuomo: State lifting restrictions in former COVID-19 'hot spots,' including on LI

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday the state

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday the state is lifting business and gathering restrictions in "microclusters" that had seen higher spread of the coronavirus, including parts of Nassau and Suffolk counties, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Credit: NY Governor's Office

This story was reported by Catherine Carrera, Matthew Chayes and Bart Jones. It was written by Jones.

The state is lifting restrictions for businesses and gatherings in "microclusters" that had seen high levels of spread of the coronavirus, including areas in Nassau and Suffolk counties and Brooklyn and Staten Island, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday.

The governor also said he appreciates President Joe Biden's administration increasing vaccine deliveries to New York by 16%, starting this week, but said that is not nearly enough to adequately supply the first phases of the vaccination campaign.

If New York received enough dosages, Cuomo said, the entire state could be vaccinated in a month with its distribution and administration capability.

"We could do literally millions and millions of doses in a month," Cuomo said at a news briefing in Albany. But "we will never get that level of supply because the federal government won’t get that level of production."

Cuomo said the spike in cases triggered by holiday gatherings since late November is "over," allowing for relaxing rules restricting restaurants, school districts, mass gatherings and houses of worship in the most infected zones.

While he said the state is being "hypercautious" in New York City, due to its dense population, he is discussing with the mayor and others potential changes to restrictions on indoor dining.

He expects to make an announcement by the end of the week, he said, and indicated that New York City restaurants may be allowed to return to 25% capacity for indoor dining. "I fully understand how difficult it is that they are closed," he said.

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Among areas where neighborhoods will be freed from additional limits on business activity and gatherings are so-called orange zones in Staten Island and Westchester County and lesser-restricted yellow zones in Nassau, Suffolk, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Westchester. All other statewide coronavirus mitigation rules remain in effect, state officials said.

Parts of the Bronx and Queens, as well as the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan and the upstate City of Newburgh, remain under "yellow" hot spot restrictions.

The yellow zones on Long Island were Hampton Bays, Riverhead, Great Neck and Massapequa Park.

Shanell Baron, assistant manager of the La Gelato and La Pizzeria eateries on Middle Neck Road in Great Neck, said she hopes the relaxed regulations will be good for business, drawing more customers.

"Hopefully, we’ll be able to get more back, because we love our customers, we love being able to celebrate with them," she said. "We love to get our community together to eat, to have fun together."

The eateries, which are kosher and serve sushi, pizza, Israeli dishes and Italian food, have come to rely more on takeout and app services like Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash, Slice and others, as some customers are anxious about dining in person, she said.

Suffolk County schools in yellow zones had stopped weekly COVID-19 testing of students and teachers weeks ago when results showed they had a lower infection rate than that of the yellow zone region, said Ronald Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

The guidance stated that results of testing had to show a positivity rate lower than the zone’s seven-day positivity rate before testing is not required.

Masera helped districts in the yellow zones, such as Riverhead and Hampton Bays, coordinate with the county's Department of Health Services to set up testing sites in their schools when the yellow zone designations were initially enacted.

"Any testing monitoring that we’ve done on Long Island has demonstrated that the school infection rate is lower than the region," Masera said Wednesday. "We feel very confident that the things we’re doing in schools are working."

The decision to lift the yellow-zone restrictions won’t change much of the day-to-day in schools, he added.

"Our job in the schools is to make sure we’re utilizing universal masking, emphasizing social distancing and focusing on respiratory and hand hygiene so we can minimize spread at all times in our schools," Masera said. "Whether or not we have a zone classification doesn’t change what we do on a daily basis in our schools."

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said she was pleased with the lifting of the yellow zone restrictions.

"By and large our residents, businesses and schools have been doing the right thing — wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding unsafe gatherings," Curran said. "But we need to keep it up. We must stay vigilant and continue using common sense so we can keep up this progress."

What restrictions remain

Businesses in yellow zones had been allowed to remain open. The capacity limit for houses of worship remained at 50% like the rest of the state. Mass gatherings were limited to 25 people — indoor and outdoor. Restaurants were able to offer indoor- and outdoor-dining with a limit of four people per table. Schools did not close but had to test 20% of students, teachers and staff weekly.

However, other coronavirus restrictions remain in place throughout the state.

According to state regulations, retail and personal care businesses can operate at 50% capacity in regular zones, and gyms and fitness centers at 33%. Gatherings are limited to 10 people residential and 50 people nonresidential.

Restaurants outside New York City can operate at 50% capacity, with 10 people per table maximum. Restaurants must close by 10 p.m. Social distancing and masks are required, though masks can be removed to eat.

In the latest test results from Tuesday, the state measured an overall positivity rate of 5.44%.

The level on Long Island was 6.83%, the highest in the state. That prompted Cuomo, who has expressed concern about the levels in Nassau and Suffolk counties over the past week, to mutter, "Long Island, Long Island, Long Island."

Still, he noted that the levels statewide are generally declining since the holiday spikes.

The number of new confirmed virus cases was 977 in Nassau, 1,084 in Suffolk, and 4,947 in New York City from test results Tuesday.

The number of people hospitalized Tuesday with the virus was 8,771 statewide, a decrease of 60 from the previous day, though 170 people died of coronavirus-related causes.

Cuomo cautioned that the virus has been constantly shifting and presenting new challenges.

"This COVID beast has morphed four times while we've been dealing with it," he said. "Tomorrow will be different, if you ask me, and if something changes, we will change. We can only make decisions based on the facts that we have today."

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.

96% of vaccine used in NY

Being "functionally out" of vaccine on Wednesday, the state is going "week-to-week" managing vaccine plans, because 96% of the first dosages it received from the federal government for the first six weeks of the vaccination effort have been used, Cuomo said.

He said Biden's commitment to give New York the same allocation for the next three weeks, at a level 16% higher than previous weeks, will at least make it easier for hospitals, pharmacies and other vaccine sites to plan.

But "the sixteen percent increase does not solve the fundamental anxiety that has been created" since 7 million people are now eligible for the shots in New York while the supply lags far behind. The state's population is about 19.5 million.

Cuomo said he believes it will take the country six to nine months before it has enough dosages to inoculate the vast majority of the population and get the virus under control.

"It’s going to take six months to get the full supply, but at least we know that there is an end point where we are going to get the kind of supply that we need," he said. "This is all great news from the federal government."

He warned, though, that the "nightmare" scenario would be if a variant to the virus breaks out which is resistant to the vaccines.

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