It's been a long 14 months for restaurants, gyms and businesses, but the end of the Covid-19 pandemic and a bit more normalcy is in sight in New York.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday that once New York State's adult vaccination rate hits 70%, the state will fully reopen, with some caveats.
The state's vaccination rate currently is 68.6% for residents 18 and older who have received at least one dose.
"When we hit 70%, I feel good telling the people of this state, we will relax virtually all restrictions," Cuomo said Monday in a briefing from New York City.
“If he’s going to give it the green flag, I’m OK with it,” said Steve Carmina, a downtown Buffalo business owner, property owner and board member of Buffalo Place. “It’s good for business. It’s good for downtown, to see people on the street. I’m already seeing bars that are filled beyond whatever the capacity is that the governor has allowed, and restaurants as well.”
“I think that’s wonderful news, to be able to bring entertainment back to downtown Buffalo and life back to downtown Buffalo,” said Michael Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place, the nonprofit organization that runs the downtown business improvement district. “It’s terrific.”
How long will it take?
Cuomo asked his assembled staff at the briefing for a guess as to when the state would reach 70%, ranging from Health Commissioner Howard Zucker's first week of July to Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa's pick of one week; Cuomo's guess was eight days.
"When we hit 70%, we will be back to life as normal – or as normal as life can be post-Covid," Cuomo said.
Restrictions that would be lifted, in most commercial settings, include social distancing, capacity limits, cleaning requirements, health screening protocols, as well as contact tracing preparations. Cuomo said the state will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for wearing masks, which requires unvaccinated individuals to maintain social distancing and wear a mask.
After state restrictions are lifted, businesses may implement other health precautions for their employees and patrons, including requiring masks and 6 feet of social distancing.
Good news for theaters
“That is very positive news and I’m happy to hear it,” said Ray Barker, general manager of the North Park Theatre, said of the lifting of restrictions. “If they are going to change the rules, we will change with them. The moment we hit 70% we will shift to the new protocol.”
That change would more than double the number of people who could attend a movie in the North Park, which has a seating capacity of 606 people, but is limited to 250 under current state guidelines for indoor venues.
“We are really encouraged to hear that things are moving in the right direction. More and more people are comfortable coming out to movies. We have seen very good attendance for ‘A Quiet Place Part II.’ I think it’s all a progression. If we get to a point that we don’t have to worry about masks or social distancing that means we’ve reached herd immunity. I’m sure there will be some customers who will still wear their masks and that is fine.”
Not everything will change
The state's Covid-19 guidelines will still apply to several categories – including large-scale event venues, pre-K to 12 schools, public transit, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, nursing homes and health care settings – until more New Yorkers are vaccinated, the state said.
A spokeswoman for the Erie County Fair said the fair is considered a large-scale event venue. The fair announced last month it would go on this year with a limited capacity.
The announcement also won’t immediately change things at Artpark, which recently announced that it would limit its large-scale events in its outdoor amphitheater to 100% vaccinated.
“We made the move to go 100% vaccinated. By doing that we are able to play to 100% capacity if we have fully vaccinated audiences,” said Dave Wedekindt, vice president of concerts and marketing.
The alternative of separating vaccinated and nonvaccinated concertgoers did not work in the amphitheater space.
“There was no way to divide the venue. We’re not like a baseball stadium with sections and multiple entrances. People here have to use the same exits, entrances and concessions,” Wedekindt said.
Non-amphitheater events at Artpark, of which there are many, are considered outdoor social gatherings of less than 500 people so they are not restricted.
“We just ask that they wear a mask and social distance if they aren’t vaccinated,” Wedekindt said.
More dancing at weddings
Brides will be glad to hear the news. There still are several restrictions in place, including dancing and certain hors d'oeuvre displays, said Paul Castricone of the Roycroft Inn. Some wedding couples rescheduled large receptions for a 30-person event this summer because of the pandemic.
"A trend I that I see right now is that a lot of people will not have big parties, and micro-weddings are really kind of a new fad for this year," he said.
One of the challenging tasks for wedding venues was figuring out what the restrictions were, and how to put on a reception following the restrictions.
The easing of restrictions promised once the state reaches the 70% vaccinated threshold won’t significantly affect Terrie’s Workout Center, said Dmitri Pozantidis, who owns the Hertel Avenue gym with his wife, Terrie.
He said the state already had opened gyms to full capacity and he said Terrie’s plans to continue to frequently sanitize workout equipment even if cleaning requirements at businesses are lifted.
The rule change that’s made the biggest difference for Terrie’s is the policy update allowing people who are fully vaccinated to work out without a mask, Pozantidis said. He said members must provide proof of vaccination every time they visit to enter without a mask.
“A lot of people could not work out with a mask,” Pozantidis said. “Thank God they’re coming back.”
Still, he said, membership is less than a third the level before the pandemic took hold in March 2020. Terrie’s was closed for more than seven months last year.
“We lost so much revenue that I don’t think we’ll ever get it back,” Pozantidis said, but the gym is doing everything in its power to keep its doors open.
Targeting low vaccination rates
Buffalo business owner Carmina cautioned that “it doesn’t mean everything is OK” yet, since there are still people who are unvaccinated and at risk.
“I’m happy that he’s going to do it. I just hope people are responsible to their friends and neighbors if they’re not vaccinated,” Carmina said. “I’m still cautious. I’m not just going to be around anybody.”
In an effort to increase the vaccination rate, Cuomo said the state is focusing on the lowest-performing ZIP codes. Cuomo said the state's bottom 10% ZIP codes are below a 36.3% vaccination rate.
Among the bottom 25 ZIP codes with a minimum population of 3,000, one ZIP was in Erie County (Buffalo's 14211 at 33.4%) and three were in Cattaraugus County (Franklinville's 14737 at 31.0%, Gowanda's 14070 at 31.2% and Delevan's 14042 at 33.8%). Eleven of the bottom 25 ZIP codes are in New York City.
"Target those areas," said Cuomo, who likened this localized approach to previous Covid-19 focus on hospitalization rates in an effort to gain "more accountability."
News Staff Reporters Jonathan Epstein, Stephen T. Watson and Toni Ruberto contributed to this report.