NEW YORK — It was the moment many New Yorkers had been waiting for: Gov. Andrew Cuomo officially announced the end of most COVID-19 restrictions “effective immediately” on Tuesday.
The announcement came one day after the state hit its goal of getting at least one vaccine shot in the arms of 70% of adult New Yorkers.
“What does 70% mean? It means that we can now return to life as we know it,” Cuomo told an invitation-only crowd at the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Effective immediately, he said, the state lifted rules that required many types of businesses to follow cleaning protocols or take people’s temperatures or screen them for COVID-19 symptoms.
Businesses no longer have to follow social distancing rules, or limit how many people they can allow inside based on keeping people 6 feet apart. New York had previously allowed businesses to stop enforcing social distancing and mask rules, but only for vaccinated patrons.
Some federal rules will remain: New Yorkers, for now, will continue to have to wear masks in schools, subways, large venues, homeless shelters, hospitals, nursing homes, jails and prisons.
Cuomo, a Democrat, said there would be fireworks displays around the state Tuesday. He said in previous days that the fireworks would commemorate the 70% threshold, but said Tuesday the fireworks are to honor essential workers.
New York has, essentially, been at that mark for days. It reached 69.5% of adults vaccinated on Saturday, and 69.9% on Monday.
But Cuomo said New York would remember Tuesday, June 15 — also the birthdate of his late father, the former Gov. Mario Cuomo — as the date when New York “rose again.”
It’s unclear how many more people have to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity, which is when enough people have immunity that the virus has trouble spreading, but many experts believe it’s 70% or higher.
Just half of all 20 million residents, of all ages, in New York are fully vaccinated, according to federal data.
Leading medical experts have backed away from focusing on a set number for herd immunity: Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a June 4 interview that the nation’s priority should be vaccinating as many people as possible “rather than trying to contort ourselves to figure out what that number is.”
Also, in New York, a variety of medical experts are cautioning people to not let their guard down against coronavirus, even as strides are being made to counter it.
Dr. Purvi Parikh, of the Allergy and Asthma Network and NYU Langone Medical Center, specializes in fighting respiratory illnesses, including Covid. She said that while New York’s lifting of restrictions is a positive development, there’s still work to be done.
“All those people who’ve only had one dose need to get second dose,” she said, referring to the fact that New York’s 70% vaccination rate is for first doses only, among people 18 years and older. “Two, it’s a race against time with these variants,” she added.
She mentioned that the Delta variant in particular, which has prevented the U.K. from lifting many restrictions, and has been behind a high illness and death rate in India, has potential to be a concern in the New York metro area in the months ahead.
The variant has infected many people who have only gotten one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
Both vaccines require second doses for maximum immunity.
“As summer is here, people are more lax,” Parikh continued. “They’re letting go of masking as much, as distancing as much, so everyone has to be careful until they have both the doses.”
New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi also on Tuesday addressed the risks posed by the Delta variant.
“We are seeing with the Delta variant that that second shot is even more important than we had already known that it was,” Chokshi said at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daily briefing.
“This is why all of the work that we and our health care partners are doing to ensure that people are coming back for that second shot becomes all the more important,” Chokshi continued. “I do want to make sure that people are aware that the science indicates that when you are fully vaccinated, it does give you strong protection against all of the variants, including the Delta variant.”
Since Jan. 1, about 1.1 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 in New York, according to state data, but new infections have plummeted this spring.
Over the past seven days, New York has been averaging around 455 new cases per day, the lowest recorded level since the pandemic began. Fewer than 620 people were hospitalized statewide.
The pace of vaccinations has also slowed substantially. New York administered nearly 582,000 doses over the past seven days, down from a one-time average of 1 million doses each week.
New York has tried to boost vaccination rates by offering a $5 million lottery scratch ticket and raffling off full-ride, four-year public college scholarships.
Vaccination rates in some parts of the state remain low, including rural counties and parts of New York City. Only about 30% of the population is vaccinated in Allegany County, a rural area in western New York.
Also Tuesday, health officials announced that nearly 900 people received expired COVID-19 vaccine doses at a vaccination site in Times Square earlier this month.
The 899 people who received doses of the Pfizer vaccine at the former NFL Experience building in Times Square between June 5 and June 10 should schedule another Pfizer shot as soon as possible, the New York City Health Department said.