New York, Florida announce lifting of Covid-19 restrictions

The announcement highlights how far the Big Apple has come in getting the Covid-19 virus under control.
The announcement highlights how far the Big Apple has come in getting the Covid-19 virus under control.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK/MIAMI (AFP) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a major easing of coronavirus restrictions on Monday (May 3), including the imminent resumption of 24-hour operations on the city subway.

The announcement highlights how far the Big Apple, once the epicentre of the United States's outbreak, has come in getting the Covid-19 virus under control.

From May 19, percentage limits on occupancy will be scrapped for many business and cultural venues in the city - including shops, restaurants, cinemas and museums, Cuomo said.

These limits currently vary between 33 and 75 per cent capacity.

Businesses will be allowed to welcome as many people as they want provided six feet of social distancing is maintained, as recommended by the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's fully open, subject to six feet," Cuomo told reporters. The six-feet rule does not apply if all customers provide proof of vaccination or a negative test.

"All the arrows are pointing in the right direction," he added, pointing to declining Covid-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations, which are at their lowest since November, and rising vaccination levels.

Outdoor gathering limits will double from 250 to 500 people, while 250 people will be able to get together indoors, up from 100.

Larger gatherings will be allowed if everyone in attendance is either vaccinated or recently tested negative.

The announcement paves the way for New York's famous theatre to plan their return.

"We look forward to reopening at full capacity and are working to safely welcome audiences and employees back to Broadway theatres this fall," said the Broadway League trade association.

Large-scale indoor event venues will be able to operate at 30 percent capacity, up from 10 per cent currently, while outdoor sports stadia will operate at 33 per cent.

Cuomo said underground trains services in the Big Apple will resume around the clock on May 17.

In May 2020, when New York was being ravaged by the disease, services were halted overnight to allow for trains to be disinfected. Services currently stop running between 2am and 4am.

Monday's announcement, made in coordination with the neighbouring states of New Jersey and Connecticut, came as 80,000 city government workers returned to offices, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio has said he hopes New York City can "fully reopen" by July 1.

Many private employers have yet to set a return date though, and the business districts in Midtown and Wall Street remain deserted with many staff still working from home.

Meanwhile, Florida governor Ron DeSantis on Monday lifted all Covid-19 restrictions in the US state, citing the effectiveness and availability of vaccines, in a move that attracted criticism from Democratic mayors.

DeSantis signed a law invalidating local emergency orders - which impose restrictions due to Covid-19 - effective from July 1, and then signed an executive order that bridges the gap between now and then.

"That's the evidence thing to do," the Republican governor said at a news conference, referring to the reduction in infections and deaths as the vaccine rollout continues. Nearly nine million people - out of a total of 23 million residents - have had at least one dose of the vaccine in Florida, according to the US health department.

"At this point, the people that haven't been vaccinated is certainly not because a lack of supply or a lack of availability," he added.

The vaccine was made available last Friday for everyone over the age of 16 without the need for proof of state residency, a document that had been required since January to cope with the initial high demand. This enabled vaccinations for undocumented migrants, who had difficulty proving their residency, as well as, tacitly, so-called vaccine tourism.

DeSantis - a potential 2024 presidential candidate who is popular with many Donald Trump supporters - criticised the strict security measures that remain in place elsewhere in the United States. He said that those who say they need to still restrict residents are saying they "don't believe in the vaccines."

Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available, in many cases without appointment, at federal, state and county centers; in addition to numerous pharmacies and supermarkets.

"I'm deeply concerned by this decision. We are still in a public health emergency," said Daniella Levine-Cava, Democratic mayor of Miami-Dade county, the most populous in the state.

"Fewer than half of our residents have been vaccinated, and we face a growing threat from variants."

Rick Kriseman, St. Petersburg mayor, said DeSantis was putting his own ambitions above health policy. "This isn't for the protection of Floridians," he said. "This is for politics - and that's not what it's supposed to be."