New York City’s reopening — a milestone longed for over the last 14 months, aloud among friends six feet apart or in frustrated silence, waiting in line in the rain to enter a store — arrived at last on Wednesday. It was less a grand gala than a soft opening, a finish line at the end of a long race that no one wanted to be the first to cross.
Four hundred and twenty three days since the city shut down, on a Sunday in March 2020, when it accounted for half the nation’s coronavirus cases, its first day fully back in business was messy and inconsistent and confusing. It short, it was New York City, and a single set of new rules was widely superseded by the personal comfort levels of its millions of residents.
Masks, no longer a hard requirement for the vaccinated in most situations, remained firmly in place by the majority of people, whether in the big-box stores and tiny boutiques of Manhattan or the shaded paths of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or on the sign at the entrance of stores like Victoria, selling clothing in the Bronx.
“It’s still store policy,” said Raj Lalbatchan, 23, a worker there. Nearby, Elisabeth Ocasio, 51, a server at the restaurant La Isla, said it is standing firm with the status quo. “We don’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” she said. “We’re doing everything the same here.”
Scenes of joy alongside those of caution played out throughout the city. The owner of du Pont dry cleaners on Amsterdam Avenue in the Upper West Side, Byong Min, 64, spent 90 days in a hospital suffering from Covid last year, the scar from his tracheotomy visible above his collar. On Wednesday morning, a customer arrived and asked tentatively: Could she enter without a mask?
He said yes. But he regretted it moments later.
“She told me she was vaccinated and I am vaccinated, but wow, maybe I should be more careful,” he said. “I wasn’t really thinking. I just said OK.”
In Red Hook in Brooklyn, the Chelsea Garden Center, a bustling nursery, considered removing its 2-customer indoor limit, but stopped short. “It’s a little scary to change things,” said Bethany Perkins, an employee. “We’re so used to the rules right now.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday morning that he planned to keep mask rules in place at city offices because there would be a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people there, and that he planned to wear a mask in most cases out of an abundance of caution.
“When you’re not sure, my personal advice is wear a mask,” the mayor said, adding “we’ve done it, for god’s sakes, for a year, we can do it a little bit longer to finish the job.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
The European Union agreed on Wednesday to reopen its borders to visitors who have been fully vaccinated with an approved shot, or those coming from a list of countries considered safe from a Covid perspective, its executive said, putting the rules in place just in time for the summer tourist season.
Ambassadors from the 27 member states reached consensus at a meeting on Wednesday, endorsing a proposal by the European Commission, which will see the bloc reopen its borders to tourists and other travelers more freely after being largely inaccessible for over a year.
The list of safe countries based on epidemiological criteria will be finalized on Friday, and the new measures could go into effect as early as next week, according to European officials involved in the process. The president of the European Commission had previewed the measures in an interview with The New York Times in April.
The bloc will accept visitors who have received full immunization using one of the shots approved by its own regulator or by the World Health Organization. That covers the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccines. This would open the door to Americans, who have been receiving shots from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
Member states will retain the freedom to tweak these measures if they want to take a more conservative approach, meaning that some European countries could retain demands for negative PCR tests or quarantines for certain visitors.
The bloc will also maintain an emergency-brake option, a legal tool that will allow it to quickly snap back to more restrictive travel conditions if a threatening new variant or other Covid emergency emerges.
India recorded 4,529 Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday, the pandemic’s highest single known daily death toll in any country so far, the authorities said on Wednesday, as the virus spread into the country’s vast hinterlands.
The previous deadliest day for a single country was recorded in the United States in January, when 4,468 people died.
Many experts believe the true number of deaths and infections in India, a country of 1.4 billion people, is even higher, and evidence has emerged across the country of large numbers of people dying from Covid who have not been officially counted.
India reported 267,000 new cases on Tuesday, pushing the official case tally past 25 million, with more than 280,000 deaths.
While infections seem to be slowing down in some of India’s urban centers, including New Delhi and Mumbai, the virus is spreading in the countryside. Testing there is limited, the medical infrastructure is woefully underfunded and overwhelmed, and some leaders have been trying to downplay the damage, sometimes even criminalizing cries for help.
Experts warn that a drop in new daily cases is likely to be a reflection of the success of urban lockdowns, and that the virus is still spreading elsewhere unchecked. Hospitals remain short of supplies, and the vaccination campaign has been slow. The death toll has remained over 4,000 for several days, suggesting that even if new infections are decreasing in urban centers, those infected earlier are dying.
The virus has taken a heavy toll on India’s doctors and medical workers as well.
More than 1,000 doctors have died of Covid since the pandemic began last year. The rate of deaths has been much higher, and the age of victims often much younger, since the second wave of infections started this spring. More than 260 doctors have died since April, according to the Indian Medical Association.
As the coronavirus was crushing New York City last year, hospitals were full and thousands were dying every day. The living retreated to their apartments and the city, almost overnight, transformed into a shadow of itself.
Now, the virus is in retreat and the state is taking its biggest step yet toward normalcy, or a new version of it. Starting Wednesday, 14 months after pandemic restrictions began, most businesses can return to 100 percent capacity if customers maintain six feet of distance. The biggest change will be seeing the faces of New Yorkers again: Vaccinated people in most cases no longer have to wear masks, indoors or outdoors, unless businesses mandate them.
Theaters and other large venues, including ballparks, can return to full capacity, up from one-third, if they require patrons to show proof of vaccination. House parties will be allowed: Up to 50 people can gather indoors in private homes.
“This is an exciting moment; this has been a dark, dark hellish year,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Monday, after announcing the end of the mask mandate. “But that was yesterday, and we are looking at a different tomorrow.”
But the reopening won’t be a sudden return to prepandemic life. Many New Yorkers will prefer to keep wearing masks. And some restaurant owners, like Annie Shi of King, a small restaurant in the West Village, said that with distancing requirements, “75 percent or 100 percent doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
Sal Rao, the owner of Mama Rao’s in Borough Park, Brooklyn, said that he and his staff — who all got vaccinated on one day, closing the restaurant to do it — will remain masked, but they will let patrons take off their masks on the honor system.
“We are going to let them come in and enjoy some of the privileges of being human again,” Mr. Rao said.
Masks, following new federal guidance, will continue to be mandatory on public transit and in schools from prekindergarten to 12th grade, in homeless shelters, correctional facilities, nursing homes and health care settings.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City said on Wednesday morning that he planned to keep mask rules in place at city offices because there would be a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people there, and that he planned to wear a mask in most cases out of an abundance of caution.
“When you’re not sure, my personal advice is wear a mask,” the mayor said, adding “we’ve done it, for god’s sakes, for a year, we can do it a little bit longer to finish the job.”
In the coming weeks, major venues like Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden will be opening or raising capacity at indoor concerts, shows and sporting events. Patrons will have to show either a paper vaccination card, the New York State digital Excelsior Pass or another digital form to enter or, in venues that allow unvaccinated attendees who test negative for the virus, to sit in vaccinated sections.
Restaurants will be allowed to place tables closer together to reach 100 percent capacity if five-foot-tall solid partitions are placed between them, Mr. Cuomo said. But some restaurants feel that using partitions compromises the dining experience, and Plexiglas can be expensive.
Mia Jacobs, a 23-year-old who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said the reopening feels “hopeful.” She works in social media in the restaurant and hospitality industry, and said she hopes that with the lifting of restrictions, “people will feel more encouraged to go to the restaurants they’ve been wanting to go to for an entire year.”
Even though she is fully vaccinated, Ms. Jacobs said she would probably continue to wear a mask, and that it would take time for her to get reacquainted with being surrounded by many people.
Still, the lifting of restrictions meant to curb the spread of a virus that devastated the city comes as a welcome sign of New York’s progress. Cases are plummeting as more New Yorkers get shots — about 43 percent of people in New York State are fully vaccinated, including more than half of Manhattan’s residents, according to C.D.C. data. Nationally, about 37 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated.
Mr. Rao, the restaurant owner, said “it was tough” doing temperature checks and contact tracing throughout the pandemic. “I think we are over that now,” he said. “I hope to God this is over.”
Emergent BioSolutions, the biotech company whose Baltimore plant ruined millions of coronavirus vaccine doses, awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses to its top executives last year, and the company’s board praised its founder and chairman for “leveraging his critical relationships with key customers, Congress, and other stakeholders,” according to documents released Wednesday by a House subcommittee.
The government, which awarded the firm a $628 million contract last year, has so far paid Emergent $271 million, even though American regulators have yet to clear a single dose of vaccine produced at its manufacturing plant in Baltimore, according to the documents released by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis in advance of a hearing on Wednesday.
Production at the plant was halted a month ago after workers accidentally contaminated a batch of vaccine, forcing Emergent to discard the equivalent of up to 15 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.
The records from an Emergent board of directors compensation meeting offer a rare glimpse inside a politically connected federal contractor whose business is built largely around a single customer: the United States government.
The documents reflect earlier reporting by The New York Times, including a series of confidential audits that highlighted repeated violations of manufacturing standards at the Baltimore plant, including failure to properly disinfect the plant and protect against contamination of vaccine batches. Another report in June 2020, by a top manufacturing expert for the federal government, warned that Emergent lacked trained staff and adequate systems for quality control.
Emergent’s board gave top performance ratings to those in its leadership ranks, including the company’s founder and chairman, Fuad El-Hibri, and its chief executive, Robert G. Kramer, who will testify before the House panel.
An Emergent spokesman, Matt Hartwig, said in a statement Wednesday morning that the company executives “look forward to clarifying misconceptions and addressing concerns” of members of Congress. “We recognize that our role in helping the nation respond to, and hopefully end, the Covid-19 pandemic is a profound and unique responsibility, unlike any we have confronted before,” he added.
The board lauded executives for their “exemplary overall 2020 corporate performance including significantly outperforming revenue and earnings targets.”
Since 2018, Mr. El-Hibri and his wife, Nancy, have donated at least $150,000 to groups affiliated with the top Republican on the panel, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, as well as Mr. Scalise’s campaigns. At least two other members of the subcommittee received donations during the 2020 election cycle from the company’s political action committee, which has given about $1.4 million over the past 10 years to members of both parties.
Mr. Kramer received a $1.2 million cash bonus, the records show; the board found that he had “significantly exceeded expectations.” Three of the company’s executive vice presidents received bonuses ranging from $445,000 to $462,000 each.
Sean Kirk, the executive responsible for overseeing development and manufacturing operations at all of Emergent’s manufacturing sites, received a special bonus of $100,000 last year, over and above his regular bonus of $320,611, in recognition of his “exceptional performance in 2020,” and for significantly expanding the company’s contract manufacturing capability to address Covid-19, the documents show.
Mr. El-Hibri, who was praised for leveraging his connections, cashed in stock worth $42 million last year, according to an investigation by The Times.
Over the past two decades, Emergent has grown from a fledgling biotech company into a firm with annual revenues that last year topped $1.5 billion. Much of its success has come from selling products aimed at thwarting a bioterrorist attack, including its anthrax vaccine, to the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency medical reserve.
The $628 million contract, awarded by the Trump administration nearly a year ago, was mostly to reserve space at Emergent’s Baltimore plant for vaccine manufacturing. The contract was approved by a former Trump administration official, Dr. Robert Kadlec, who previously consulted for Emergent.
The documents show that Emergent retained Dr. Kadlec to serve as a consultant from 2012 through 2015, agreeing to pay him $120,000 annually over that three-year period. In return, Dr. Kadlec agreed to provide advice on “international biosecurity and biodefense related issues to Emergent BioSolutions,” including outreach to senior government officials in Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Dr. Kadlec has said that while he did not negotiate the contract, he did sign off on it. The documents show he recommended that Emergent be given a “priority rating” so that it could be approved speedily.
Rebecca R. Ruiz contributed reporting.
Teamwork became a motif of the pandemic’s early days. Holed up inside their homes last spring, crafty Americans sewed masks, neighbors planted yard signs supporting health care workers, and politicians spoke in lofty language about working together to “flatten the curve.”
Then came a partisan division over masks, screaming crowds outside state capitols, death threats against local and state health officials. On the other side of the debate, some people who supported Covid-19 restrictions embraced the job of mask policing.
It quickly became apparent that, even in a crisis, Americans struggled to come together.
So it is no surprise that the latest honor code — the federal government’s guidance encouraging vaccinated Americans to take off their masks — was greeted with skepticism in parts of the country that have not already done so.
“It’s a very complicated symphony right now,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan who is an expert on pandemics. “There’s been such an erosion of trust — distrust for government, distrust for the virus, distrust for this party or that party. So when you tell the public what to do, there are people who say, ‘How can I trust the guy without the mask?’”
President Emmanuel Macron of France enjoyed an early-morning coffee with his prime minister at a cafe in Paris on Wednesday to celebrate the partial lifting of lockdown restrictions around the country.
French television showed Mr. Macron and the prime minister, Jean Castex, in an animated conversation as they sipped espressos on the narrow terrace of a café near the presidential palace, with bodyguards nearby.
Mr. Macron, interviewed by reporters through the lattice woodwork that surrounded the terrace, said it was “a little moment of recovered freedom.”
Mr. Macron noted that France’s Covid figures were headed in the right direction, with continued decreases in new daily cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
“We have to remain cautious and to collectively succeed in keeping the epidemic under control,” Mr. Macron said before walking back to the Élysée Palace.
The impromptu sit-down was intended to celebrate the first time since October that the French have been able to grab a drink on the terraces of cafes and restaurants, which have reopened at half capacity and with no more than six people per table.
Nonessential businesses were permitted to reopen on Wednesdays, as were movie theaters and museums, with limits on their capacity. The nighttime curfew, enforced since last fall, was also pushed back to 9 p.m. from 7 p.m.
In other developments from around the globe:
The United Arab Emirates said on Tuesday that it would offer a booster shot of the Sinopharm vaccine at least six months after the initial two doses, Reuters reported. Bahrain also said it would offer a third dose of the vaccine, at least six months after the second shot, starting with more vulnerable groups.
When Australian officials announced last week that the country was unlikely to fully reopen its borders until mid-2022 because of the coronavirus, the backlash began building immediately.
Critics warned that Australia risked becoming a “hermit nation.” Members of the Australian diaspora who had been struggling to return home for months considered it another blow. The announcement drew dire warnings from business, legal and academic leaders.
Polls show that keeping the borders shut is a popular idea. But the opposition sees political opportunism on the part of the government. Others predict that a continued policy of isolation could mean young people “face a lost decade” because of prolonged economic loss and social dislocation.
Australian officials contend that the restrictions on international travel — some of the strictest in the world — are the main reason the country has been so successful in crushing the virus. The government is resisting pressure from many quarters to consider an earlier reopening, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring on Tuesday, “I’m not going to take risks with Australians’ lives.”
Australia is believed to be the only country to have announced that it intends to keep its borders closed for so long because of Covid-19. Officials have made it difficult not only to fly in, but also to fly out, requiring citizens and permanent residents to apply for exemptions for occasions like funerals. A group of experts warns in a report, titled “A Roadmap to Reopening,” of long-lasting damage to the country, and especially its young people.
“There is an illusion that Australia can go at it alone and be this Shangri-La in the South Pacific,” Tim Soutphommasane, a political expert at the University of Sydney and co-sponsor of the report, said in an interview. “But I think that’s a misguided view. Other countries that do have a vaccinated population will be able to attract skilled migrants, have their universities open up to international students.”