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Cuomo: New York going back 'to life as we know it' after reaching vaccine threshold

New York reached a major COVID-19 milestone: 70%

New York reached a major COVID-19 milestone: 70% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday lifted state pandemic restrictions and said there will be fireworks around the state to celebrate. Newsday’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez; Howard Schnapp; File footage; YouTube / Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Joan Gralla, Andrew Gross, Corin Hirsch, Bart Jones, Maura McDermott, Tory N. Parrish, David Reich-Hale, Craig Schneider and Sarina Trangle. It was written by Jones.

Bars and restaurants, gyms, offices, entertainment venues, movie theaters, barbershops and hair salons will be able to go back largely to normal functioning with no requirements for social distancing or special cleaning under a sweeping relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions announced Tuesday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The governor lifted the restrictions after New York State on Monday reached the milestone of 70% of adults having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

"What does 70 percent mean? It means that we can now return to life as we know it," Cuomo said.

The end of the mandates is effective immediately, he added, though businesses, stores, offices and other locations can continue to implement the restrictions if they want. Some said they would.

While unvaccinated people will be allowed into these venues, they are expected to wear a mask and take other precautions — and that federal guidance will be left to be observed on the honor system, Cuomo said.

"Remember June 15th, remember today, because it is the day that New York rose again," he said.

The state reached the 70% mark ahead of schedule, despite taking one of the first and most severe hits from the virus, making it a global epicenter of the pandemic, Cuomo said.

"This is a momentous day and we deserve it, because it has been a long, long road," he said at a livestreamed event from One World Trade Center in Manhattan, where those assembled clapped and offered standing ovations to his comments about bringing New York back from the brink.

Cuomo saluted Long Island for achieving the highest vaccination rate of any region in the state so far, with 75.3% of people 18 and older receiving at least one dose.

To celebrate the landmark day, Cuomo said the Empire State Building and other state landmarks would be lit up in blue and gold Tuesday night, and fireworks shot off at 9:15 p.m. at locations including Jones Beach.

His move also came on a somber and sobering day for the nation: The U.S. death toll from the virus hit 600,000.

What to know

  • Effective immediately, the state lifted COVID-19 restrictions on agriculture, amusements and family entertainment, buildings, childcare, camps, construction, fishing, food services, forestry, gyms, malls, manufacturing, movie theaters, offices, personal care services, real estate, retail, sports and recreation and trade.
  • The restrictions lifted encompass capacity restrictions; cleaning and disinfecting protocols; contact information requirements for contact tracing; health screenings; social distancing; and social gathering limits.
  • Gov. Cuomo lifted the restrictions after New York reached the milestone of 70% of adults having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Some Long Island businesses reacted with relief and even giddiness, though they said they may not lift all the restrictions immediately.
  • Cuomo did not drop CDC mandates for face coverings or masks inside schools, in health care settings, and in public transportation, among others. Restrictions remain for large-scale indoor venues, requiring proof of vaccination or masks.
  • Unvaccinated individuals are still expected to wear masks and observe other precautions under CDC guidelines.

Restrictions removed for many activities

Some Long Island businesses were studying how to move out of the pandemic restrictions after more than a year of operating in sometimes surreal and frustrating circumstances. Cuomo's announcement provoked joy, relief and even giddiness.

"It's an exuberance," said Ann Conroy, CEO of Douglas Elliman on Long Island. "I feel like the war's over and people are coming home. There's a giddiness about it right now, and it's exciting."

Patrons now will be able to sit shoulder to shoulder in bars or restaurants, with pandemic capacity limits gone, Cuomo said.

"It’s amazing news," said Gina Caggiano, owner of The North Village Tavern in Rockville Centre and the LGBTQ bar BTW in Oceanside, which opened in late 2020 in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions. "It’s going to be fantastic to be able to see my customers be able to be social again and things get back to normal."

There will be no size limits on indoor gatherings in people’s homes, and performing arts venues with under 5,000 capacity can operate at full capacity.

Workers in offices and commercial buildings will no longer be required to maintain 6 feet of social distance, and operators of the buildings will not be required to perform temperature checks or health screenings of people entering.

Malls no longer will be required to have one-way direction lanes or special ventilation systems.

Barbershops and hair salons will no longer have to maintain logs of customers with contact information to aid with contact tracing.

Gyms and fitness centers will not be required to do extra cleaning and disinfecting.

Capacity limits at family entertainment centers are also lifted. Movie theaters can go back to full capacity, with both vaccinated and unvaccinated people attending, though the latter are supposed to wear masks.

Some restrictions remain in place, such as the requirement for masks indoors in school, on public transit and in health centers.

Restrictions are lifted for sports and recreation, construction, manufacturing, trade, child care, camps, food services, agriculture, fishing, forestry, and personal care services.

The Long Island Ducks minor league baseball team said in celebration of capacity limits being lifted at its ballpark in Central Islip, they will hold the first of seven fireworks shows starting after this Saturday night’s home game.

Sports restrictions were lifted, too, but the New York Islanders would not say if attendance would increase at Nassau Coliseum for Thursday night’s Game 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Islanders halted Tuesday’s ticket presale, citing "extraordinary demand" in an email sent to season-ticket subscribers, and said the presale was being reset to Wednesday.

The Yankees announced they are opening up to full capacity at the stadium, beginning with Friday night’s game against the Oakland A’s.

Vaccinations credited for progress

New York State reported a seven-day positivity rate of 0.4% from test results, placing it among the best in the nation, Cuomo said. The daily positivity level from 55,438 test results on Monday was 0.58%.

The state's lifting of restrictions elicited praise from the White House.

"In communities across New York, the deadly coronavirus is in retreat thanks to the state's progress on vaccinations," said Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran hailed the end of most restrictions as "a historic day."

"We've traveled a long journey as New Yorkers, and I'm proud that Nassau has helped lead the way. With the highest vaccination rate among large counties in New York, Nassau is set to come back roaring," she said.

Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, said, "If you had told anyone in December that we would have been at 70% on June 15, I think people would have doubted that.

"I think we can get to 80%, but now we are dealing with significant hesitation," he said. "My hope is that those people will see the benefits of being vaccinated, realize that side effects aren't a significant concern for a vast number of people, and get vaccinated."

The seven-day positivity average was 0.41% on Long Island and 0.38% in New York City.

The number of new confirmed cases was 25 in Nassau, 28 in Suffolk and 174 in New York City.

Across the state, nine people died on Monday of causes related to the virus, though none were on Long Island.

Indoor mask mandate remains in schools

Cuomo's decision not to lift the indoor mask mandate for kids in school left parents with mixed feelings.

"It’s absolutely ridiculous," said Stacey Joy, of Deer Park, who has three school-age children.

Joy noted that most kids have only a few days left of school and should be allowed to enjoy this time without masks.

"These kids have suffered so much," she said. "Let them enjoy the last days of school with some normalcy.

"Enough is enough. Let kids be kids."

Sandy Sanchez, of Lido Beach, believes the mask mandate should remain in place until school ends.

"Not all the kids are vaccinated yet," said Sanchez, who has two children in school.

Sanchez expressed concern about virus variants emerging elsewhere, such as in the United Kingdom. "We just don’t know what might be coming around," she said.

She added, "I do think that masks work. I don’t think it’s a big deal" that students keep wearing them.

Kimberly Valentzas, of Glen Cove, said she doesn’t consider the mask a big deal, especially since Wednesday is her son Harrison’s last day of classes at Glen Cove High School.

"At this point, let them wear a mask," she said. "We’re a mask family. My son is not yet vaccinated."

Wearing a mask "never bothered us. It’s never bothered him," Valentzas added.

In business, 'cautiously optimistic'

In Long Island's business world, executives and workers were absorbing the long hoped-for news and figuring out how to adjust.

Bangz Hair & Color Lounge, a Bellmore salon, will maintain some of the pandemic-related restrictions for at least a few more weeks, co-owner Richard Rubenstein said.

"Safety is our first factor … but you can’t run scared forever, either," said Rubenstein, who added that the salon tries to be respectful of everyone’s needs.

Other businesses also do not expect to lift all the remaining restrictions at once.

Douglas Elliman has been taking precautions such as having agents work remotely unless there’s a specific reason for them to come to the office, and while she expects to eventually hold in-person gatherings again, the brokerage will consider legal and medical advice and the preferences of clients, said Ann Conroy, the brokerage’s Long Island CEO.

"You really do have to be cautiously optimistic, because there are those variants, there's still a lot of the unknown, and there's still some people who are not vaccinated," she said.

The Long Island Board of Realtors said in a statement that Cuomo’s announcement has lifted certain restrictions on real estate showings and open houses, among other work.

However, the board said, real estate business must "continue to implement a mask requirement for individuals who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated."

Real estate offices, the board said, "are free to choose to lift some or all of the restrictions, except for the mask requirement for unvaccinated individuals."

Andrew Lieb, an attorney in Smithtown who advises real estate brokerages, said the state’s COVID-19 rules had generated "so much confusion about how the real estate industry was supposed to function during the entire pandemic."

Damianos Realty Group, a Smithtown-based medical and office landlord, sent the state’s announcement to its general counsel for review, according to principal Cristofer Damianos.

He said the firm, which owns about 20 buildings, needs to think about what restrictions may be lifted from both a legal and a psychological standpoint.

"We’ve limited the elevator to two people per elevator," Damianos, of St. James, said. "We have signs up. Can we remove them? … Should we remove them? Are people going to feel that it’s better to keep them up for a while?"

'The people of New York beat COVID'

The day was personally meaningful to Cuomo as well as to the state, he said, since June 15 is the birthday of his late father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

His father would be proud of the state's victory over COVID-19, Cuomo said.

"He believed that New Yorkers were special … You know who beat COVID? The people of New York beat COVID, the courage of New Yorkers beat COVID, the individual strength beat COVID" and the courage and determination of essential workers — nurses, doctors, EMS workers, teachers, utility employees, police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, bus drivers and grocery store clerks, who put themselves at risk to do their work through the pandemic and "to save others."

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said earlier Tuesday that he welcomed the state dropping pandemic-related restrictions.The city’s positivity rate, averaged over the last seven days, is 0.57%, de Blasio said. "Lowest we’ve ever had," he said.

De Blasio brushed aside concerns that the region might be reopening too quickly despite pockets of low vaccination rates in certain neighborhoods. "I think we’re ready. That’s the bottom line," he said, citing the city’s steady decline in hospitalizations, virus positivity and the increasing number of people vaccinated. "It’s time. I’m very comfortable it’s time."

In NYC, some got expired shots

The New York City Department of Health and ATC Vaccination Services are advising 899 people to return for another shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 because the second shots they received had expired.

The vaccines were administered at the firm’s Times Square site, officials said.

"We apologize for the inconvenience to those receiving the vaccine batch in question and want people first and foremost to know that we have been advised that there is no danger from the vaccine they received," the firm said in a statement.

Getting another shot is the only way to be sure the vaccines will be fully effective, the company said, explaining it was acting on the advice of Pfizer and following the city health department's instructions.

"We encourage those affected to get a new dose anywhere that provides the Pfizer vaccine," the firm said.

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