Officials made the move after more than 70 per cent of adults in both states had received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
The governors of New York and California, the states hit earliest and hardest by the pandemic, triumphantly announced Tuesday that they had lifted virtually all coronavirus restrictions on businesses and social gatherings as both states hit milestones in vaccinating their residents.
In New York, where 70 per cent of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, the order from Governor Andrew Cuomo means that restaurants will no longer be forced to space tables 6 feet apart; movie theatres will be allowed to pack their auditoriums without spacing seats apart; and entrance to commercial buildings won't require a temperature check.
"This is a momentous day and we deserve it because it has been a long, long road," Cuomo said Tuesday at the World Trade Center, in Lower Manhattan, adding that the changes meant a "return to life as we know it."
In California, where 72 per cent of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Governor Gavin Newsom called Tuesday "reopening day," as he lifted similar capacity limits on businesses and social distancing requirements, with some exceptions.
Businesses in both states, however, will still have the option of requiring health precautions on their premises. The two governors, both Democrats who are facing political difficulties, made their announcements at events that seemed more like rallies than news conferences.
For all the celebration, however, the nation was also poised to reach 600,000 dead from the coronavirus, a grim reminder of the virus's painful toll even as Americans begin to enjoy a summer with significantly fewer limitations, if any, on their ability to live, work and socialise. More than 63,000 have died from the virus in California, while in New York that number has reached nearly 53,000 — the two highest totals in the country.
Yet both governors took the opportunity to look ahead.
In a 45-minute speech, Cuomo, who is facing multiple investigations and the possibility of an impeachment proceeding, highlighted many of his pet infrastructure projects, embraced political supporters and announced a display of fireworks statewide scheduled for Tuesday night.
Newsom, who is facing a recall campaign but has seen his approval ratings improve as the pandemic has receded, showed up at Universal Studios Hollywood flanked by an assortment of Minions from the Despicable Me movie franchise and the Transformers robot hero, Optimus Prime, to announce US$1.5 million lottery prizes to people who had been vaccinated.
In both states, health officials have struggled to expand vaccinations among significant pockets of their population. Some of the lowest adult vaccination rates in New York City, for example, are in the Bronx, where 38 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated, and in Brooklyn, where 41 per cent are, while several populous counties in California have yet to hit a 40 per cent full vaccination rate for all residents.
Even so, the lifting of restrictions in the coastal states — once epicenters of the pandemic — marked a symbolic moment in the nation's fight against the coronavirus and are expected to bring back the type of scenes familiar to most New Yorkers and Californians in pre-pandemic times.
"Rollback of most of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions is the green light that employers have been waiting for in order to bring employees back to the workplace," said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group.
In California, even business owners who had been critical of Newsom expressed relief at the new rules.
"I see light! I see light!" joked Michael Helmrich, whose Mandarin Restaurant in Sacramento was so battered during the past year that he posted a sign in the front window reading, "Newsom sucks — the life out of California small businesses."
Cuomo set the 70 per cent threshold that triggered the end of the restrictions in New York last week as a way to spur on the state's reopening and incentivise people to get vaccinated, saying "virtually all" coronavirus rules would expire. Washington, DC, and 13 other states besides New York and California have all reached the same threshold, according to the latest federal data, with Vermont topping the list at 84%. Maryland will lift most virus restrictions on July 1, the state announced Tuesday.
President Joe Biden will host a 1,000-person gathering on July 4 on the South Lawn of the White House to celebrate the country's continued return to normalcy. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday announced that the city would hold a parade on July 7 to honor front line and essential workers.
Even with the restrictions lifted, California and New York residents should still expect to see some signs of pandemic life.
Both states will still abide by mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has advised that unvaccinated people should wear masks indoors and maintain social distancing. Some stricter restrictions will remain in correctional and health care facilities, as well as in schools, public transit and homeless shelters.
And the decision to end many of the precautions, such as allowing vaccinated customers to walk around without masks, will be up to individual businesses. Some may decide to keep them in place in order to allow their clientele and employees to feel safe.
Despite the cause for celebration, it will probably be months before New York City's commercial corridors in Manhattan resemble anything like the hustle and bustle before the pandemic. Just 12 per cent of workers have returned to their offices as of late May, about the same rate it was last fall, according to Partnership for New York City.
California has been in better shape economically than most states, although its tourism sector "really had the sledgehammer taken to it," Newsom said Monday. The state's unemployment rate remains about 4 percentage points higher than before the crisis and higher than the national average, largely because of layoffs at restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions.
Over the past few months, as the virus positivity rate has reached record lows, Cuomo has eased an array of pandemic-era rules, but Tuesday's announcement was a near total cancellation of restrictions.
Twenty-four-hour subway service resumed last month. Bars and restaurants were allowed to operate at 100 per cent capacity and to stay open past midnight. State officials have also loosened capacity limits to allow more people in concert halls and sports stadiums.
Cuomo was in a celebratory mood Tuesday, delivering a speech with upbeat music, as well as handshakes with major labor leaders, whom Cuomo honoured with plaques to recognize the sacrifice of essential workers during the pandemic. Cuomo did not take questions from reporters.
"Remember June 15," Cuomo said, noting that was also the birthday of his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, whom the younger Cuomo often invokes. "It is the day that New York rose again."
For a governor who climbed to national fame at the height of the pandemic, the speech appeared to suggest a "mission accomplished" moment in the state's battle against the virus at a time when Cuomo has been embroiled in several scandals.
He has been scrambling to rehabilitate his image after sexual harassment accusations that have led to calls for his resignation, including among members of his own party. Multiple state and federal investigations are looking into the accusations, as well as his handling of information of deaths in nursing homes early in the pandemic and a US$5.1 million deal he received last year to write a pandemic memoir.
Newsom is facing a recall campaign. The attempt to oust him — a Democratic governor in a blue state who was elected in 2018 in a landslide — defied even the expectations of its Republican backers by qualifying for the ballot.
Speaking without a face covering at Universal Studios on Tuesday, Newsom said it was time "to move beyond capacity limits, to move beyond these colour codings, move beyond social distancing and physical distancing, and — yes, as you saw me walk up to the stage — to move beyond mask coverings."
"Today is a day to reconnect — to give people hugs, to remind them we're not out of the woods yet, to remind them we're all in this together," he said. "California is open again."
Some public health experts expressed concerns about a fuller reopening as the pace of vaccinations has slowed substantially in recent weeks, and they said it was critical to increase the vaccination rate before the fall, when more people are indoors.
"My worry is whether this will erode the momentum of getting more people vaccinated," said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. "I worry people are going to think this is behind us."
Others, however, said abandoning restrictions was merited, given the improving infection and hospitalisation rate, and, most important, the number of people who have been vaccinated.
Dr. Kitaw Demissie, dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, said reaching a 70 per cent vaccination rate represented a real public health success.
"Seventy percent is really good in my opinion," he said, estimating that at least another 10 per cent of people in New York City had immunity from prior infection. "So that will take us probably to 80 per cent or 85 per cent immunity."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Shawn Hubler
Photographs by: Calla Kessler, Jim Wilson and Kendrick Brinson
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES