Some experts like Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, think the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions in New York and other states is too fast, too soon and may lead to an increase in cases. Credit: Corey Sipkin, Howard Schnapp

The loosening of COVID-19 restrictions in New York and other states risks reversing gains in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, health experts say.

"It’s a little baffling and alarming to see this," said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in Manhattan.

With the number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations still relatively high, and the full effect of more contagious variants still unknown, it's premature to ease restrictions so dramatically, said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

"We are at a critical point," said Schaffner, who believes there likely will be an increase in hospitalizations and deaths because of the rollbacks. "We’re vaccinating fast and furiously. We need to hang on as a society a bit longer."

New York's Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has in the past few weeks announced a series of relaxations in regulations, citing the decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations from a post-holiday peak — although numbers remain far higher than over the summer.

Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the...

Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, finds New York's pace of reopening alarming amid threats from variants and and a continued high number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Credit: Corey Sipkin

Maximum capacity for indoor dining will rise Friday to 75% outside New York City and 50% within the city. Weddings of up to 150 people will be allowed starting Monday, with restrictions such as 50% capacity, masks when not seated and negative coronavirus test results. Arts and entertainment venues will open at 33% capacity beginning April 2, with up to 150 people indoors and 500 people outdoors, with restrictions. Domestic travelers will as of April 1 no longer be required to quarantine upon arrival in New York.

Other states have gone much further, including Texas, which recently rescinded a mask mandate and lifted capacity restrictions. Connecticut is eliminating restaurant capacity limits beginning Friday, and Massachusetts did so on March 1.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said March 1 she was "really worried about more states rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19. … At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained."

Schaffner said some of New York's new rules significantly increase risk. "Groups of 150 to 500 are simply too large at this point," Schaffner said, and he predicted many people will ignore mask and social-distancing requirements at events. Testing misses the newly infected and can yield false negatives, he said.

Jack Sterne, a Cuomo spokesman, said in an email that New York’s moves can’t be compared with those in states like Texas, "which recklessly reopened ‘100%’, while repealing mask mandates. New York’s reopening remains a thoughtful and methodical process based on data, science and safety."

Opposition to lifting restrictions isn’t universal. Dr. John Zerwas, a coronavirus adviser to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System, told The Dallas Morning News that he supported Abbott’s lifting of all restrictions because the state’s COVID-19 numbers were falling.

In New York, the rate of positive coronavirus tests has remained level since late February, hovering at a seven-day average of about 3.1% to 3.2%, after dropping from 7.9% on Jan. 4.

The fall in hospitalizations since early January has slowed, with the number of New Yorkers hospitalized with COVID-19 Saturday at nearly 4,500, after a post-holiday peak of 9,273 on Jan. 19. More than 1,000 New Yorkers have died of COVID-19 in the past two weeks.

El-Sadr said even though numbers have fallen since January, "We don’t want to have complacency, that people think of this as success, that we have this very high plateau where we’re at. Success is what we accomplished last summer, and we were able to sustain that for several months over the summer in the absence of vaccines."

During the summer, positivity rates typically were at about 1% or below, and hospitalizations statewide fell to 410 on Sept. 10 —about 11 times lower than they were on Saturday.

New York has the nation's second-highest number of daily new coronavirus cases per capita, according to CovidActNow, a nonprofit website run by epidemiologists and other experts.

A man walks last month by a shuttered retail store...

A man walks last month by a shuttered retail store space advertised for rent in the Lower East Side Manhattan. While many businesses were affected by pandemic closures, some experts question whether the state is reopening too soon. Credit: AP/Mark Lennihan

Seeking balance in economy's return

Richard M. Bivone, co-chair of the Long Island Business Council, said the loosening of restrictions is helping struggling businesses to survive, while maintaining mask and social-distancing mandates that protect public health.

"There has to be a balance everyone can live with," he said.

Sterne said the state is monitoring metrics such as hospitalizations and positivity rates, and if there’s another surge, "we will take swift action" by reversing some rollbacks.

Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said it’s "a tough question to answer in the absolute" if it’s wise to, for example, increase restaurant capacities and reopen concert venues. Those places may disproportionately attract young people, who are less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19, but also may be more likely to spread the virus because they often don’t have symptoms, he said. Older people with health conditions should be especially cautious, no matter what the law allows, he said.

But, echoing recently issued CDC recommendations, he said that, for example, two vaccinated couples can socialize without masks.

Normadeane Armstrong, a professor of epidemiology and public health at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, said she was invited to a wedding later this month but declined because a close family member has health conditions that increase COVID-19 vulnerability.

"If you’re in an area with 150 people, it’s as if you’re living with 150 potential exposures," she said.

Armstrong said some of the state’s moves were reasonable, such as allowing sports arenas to seat up to 10% of capacity — as long as requirements such as wearing masks, social distancing and negative test results are enforced.

El-Sadr said as vaccinations continue, and if COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations significantly fall, it may be appropriate to reduce restrictions.

"There’s light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "But we still have to walk through that tunnel before we get to that light."

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