New York State will lift most capacity restrictions for businesses and public places on May 19, though the state will maintain a 6-foot social distancing requirement, with exceptions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.
Restaurants, offices, retail stores, gyms, hair salons, amusements and family entertainment locations will see an easing of pandemic-related capacity limits, the governor said during a news conference.
“It’s another substantial step to getting us back to normal," said Bill Lia, chairman of the New York State Fitness Alliance, which represents large and small fitness and studio owners across the state.
The state will keep a 6-foot social distancing requirement, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and capacity limits must incorporate that rule, the governor said.
The 6-foot limit would be lifted for events where all individuals who attend provide proof of a full vaccination or a recent negative Covid-19 test, he said.
Ray Barker, general manager of the North Park Theatre, said he is waiting to see more details before making any decisions.
"The governor lays out the broad vision, but sometimes there are qualifications and revisions and asterisks. I would like to see the fine print," Barker said. "Last Monday, we were told we could go to 33% capacity, but when you look at the guidance, it was 33% with an asterisk that allowed up to the maximum capacity in New York State, which is 100 people. Without that asterisk, at 33% it would have been 200 people."
Other changes to capacity rules announced by the state include:
• The capacity limit on outdoor social gatherings rises from 200 to 500 as of May 10.
• Indoor social gatherings will be capped at 250 people, up from 100, as of May 19.
• Indoor catered events will have a maximum capacity of 250, as of May 19. The limit grows to 500 for event organizers who provide proof of attendees' full vaccination or negative test results.
• The limit on the capacity for indoor residential gatherings will jump from 10 to 50 as of May 19, Cuomo said.
• The outdoor residential capacity limit of 25 will increase to 500.
• Live entertainment venues, including the performing arts, sporting events and catered receptions, may exceed the 250-person indoor limit and the 500-person outdoor limit if all attendees show proof of a full vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test.
• The capacity at large-scale indoor venues will increase from 10% to 30% as of May 19.
"This is a major reopening of economic and social activity," Cuomo said.
Some industry-specific restrictions will remain in effect, Cuomo's office announced.
The state had already announced that outdoor curfews at restaurants and bars will be lifted May 17, and indoor curfews will be lifted May 31.
Restaurants may have tables closer than 6 feet if they have installed partitions or barriers, according to state officials.
Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, said it will be difficult for restaurants to add additional seats to maintain the social distancing requirement of 6 feet of separation between parties without installing physical barriers between tables.
“With so many of these restrictions being announced, it’s a lot of positive change for the industry. But everything hasn’t been lifted, so it’s not going to be 100 percent back to normal yet," she said.
Because the social distancing rules will remain in effect, Monday’s announcement by the governor won’t have much of an impact on his restaurants, said Jay Manno, the owner of Soho and Frankie Primo’s downtown. Manno said larger catering and banquet halls should benefit sooner.
But, combined with previously announced changes that include lifting all curfews at bars and restaurants by the end of this month, it is a sign of progress for an industry hard hit by the pandemic.
"It’s a step in the right direction," Manno said.
Still, he said, for the restaurants, bars and clubs on West Chippewa Street, including Soho and Frankie Primo’s, the full return of downtown nightlife won’t come until all pandemic-related rules are lifted.
"We have to reach the herd immunity to get the old normal," Manno said. "Nothing changes for me until I get the old normal."
To that end, he is working with Erie County and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield to offer the Covid-19 vaccine at Soho, with the first round tentatively set for later this month. People who show up will get a shot of booze with their vaccine shot, Manno said, and a second shot after their second dose.
"We’re doing our part," he said.
Lia, of the New York State Fitness Alliance, said Cuomo’s announcement will especially help smaller fitness centers that have been struggling to deal with capacity issues under Covid-19 social distancing rules.
“First and foremost, it continues to send the right message about who we are as an industry. It gives our customers the confidence that they can come back," said Lia, owner of an Albany-area fitness center company.
From a practical standpoint, Lia said fitness clubs under the new Cuomo order will no longer have to track how many people are in attendance at any one time to meet the state’s soon-to-expire capacity limits.
Morgan Deane of the New York Independent Venue Association, which represents music, comedy and other entertainment clubs, said the industry is “frustrated and disappointed” by the way the Cuomo administration has been rolling out reopening plans. She said other states have better focused on longer term reopening protocols tied to specific public health metrics.
“Our industry requires lead time for complete and successful reopening. It takes time to do the work necessary to book tours and entice audiences and tourists. Currently, many top acts are skipping the state entirely because of a lack of clarity on New York’s plan," she said in a statement Monday evening.
Deane said entertainment venues, unlike sports facilities, need artists and live audiences to survive and come back from being shuttered for 13 months.
“The broad strokes reopening announcement at today's press conference, which lacked any substantive operational guidelines, is another example of this short-term, piecemeal opening approach. With no operational guidance, we are forced to engage in speculation until we can obtain verbal guidance from the state. We then synthesize ourselves into practical operational protocols and relay them back to members. This is a process that can rob our members of days of precious business operational clarity. There is clearly a fundamental misunderstanding from the governor about how our industry operates, despite our efforts to explain otherwise. Right now the state is not actually listening to what we're saying we need to be successful," she said.
Capacity limits at large outdoor stadiums will rise to 33% as of May 19, the state previously announced.
New York is working with New Jersey and Connecticut on protocols that would allow for increased capacity at stadiums based on attendees being vaccinated or tested for Covid-19, the governor said Monday.