New York will lift many capacity restrictions on businesses starting Wednesday, in response to the easing of the coronavirus pandemic in the region and rising vaccination rates.
It is a moment state officials have billed as a major return to normalcy.
Most businesses — restaurants, stores, salons and gyms — will be able to return to 100 percent capacity, but only if they can still maintain six feet of distance between individuals or groups. The same is true for houses of worship.
Vaccinated people will no longer have to wear masks, indoors or outdoors, in most circumstances, but individual businesses are free to make stricter mask rules. (Masks will continue to be mandatory on public transit and in schools from prekindergarten to grade 12, in homeless shelters, correctional facilities, nursing homes and health care settings.)
“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.”
Here’s what you need to know:
What will immediately change?
The May 19 reopening is not a full return to normal. In many cramped New York City restaurants, the requirement to maintain six feet of distance between tables could mean fewer customers than under the 75 percent capacity that had already been allowed. In New York, the indoor social gathering limit will be set at 250, and the outdoor limit will be set at 500.
What is new, however, is that these capacity rules are no longer ironclad.
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. And theaters and other large venues, including ballparks, are permitted to return to full capacity, instead of one-third full, if they require patrons to show proof of vaccination.
Some restaurants, like Carmine’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, are already using partitions in a large, open dining room. But other restaurants feel that using partitions compromises the dining experience, and Plexiglas can be expensive. The practical difficulties of verifying vaccine status also means that many small businesses will not require proof of vaccination yet.
“We are somewhere around 50 percent indoors,” said Annie Shi, one of the owners of King, a small restaurant in the West Village, which plans to stay at that level for now. “Until the government says something about social distancing, 75 percent or 100 percent doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
In private homes, 50 people will be able to gather indoors, up from 10.
The biggest change will be the end of the mask mandate. While restaurants and other businesses can make their own rules, servers, chefs and customers in theory could all be unmasked starting on Wednesday if they are vaccinated.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen. The New York State Department of Health still “strongly recommends masks in indoor settings where vaccination status of individuals is unknown,” according to the new guidance. Major retailers, including Costco, Target, CVS, and Trader Joe’s, have already said they will end mask requirements for vaccinated patrons, subject to local guidelines.
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 in order to enter or to sit in vaccinated sections.
Broadway theaters will reopen in September at full capacity.
How safe is it?
People who are vaccinated can do much more with less risk than those who are not. But vaccines do not offer 100 percent protection, and only about half of people in the region are fully vaccinated. As a result, some epidemiologists continue to recommend following the golden rules of coronavirus safety.
Despite the new guidelines, many experts still suggest wearing a mask indoors when not eating or drinking. People should maintain social distance when possible. And they should try to choose outdoors over indoors.
“We have to keep reminding ourselves, we are in a good place in New York,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. “We are almost where we were last summer,” when there were 300 new cases a day, as opposed to about 600 now, she added. “But we are not there yet.”
On Monday, the positive test rate in New York was 1.2 percent, the lowest since September.
Few venues have adopted a proof-of-vaccine policy for entry so far. That means that they will have to continue keeping groups six feet apart, which means that a standard movie theater will be about one-third full.
“The capacity changes aren’t going to have an immediate effect on us,” said John Vanco, the senior vice president at the IFC Center, an independent movie theater in the West Village. His theaters have been operating at between 30 and 35 percent to maintain social distancing in recent weeks.
Mr. Vanco said that for now, the logistics of checking for vaccination status among his patrons felt too complex. He was waiting to see what big venues like Broadway theaters do first. Broadway theaters have not yet announced if they will require proof of vaccination.
Where should I eat?
In choosing a restaurant, the better the airflow, the more space between tables, the more seriously a restaurant is taking cleaning and other protocols, the lower the risk, health experts said.
Many public health experts are not fond of the five-foot barriers in between tables at restaurants as a substitute for social distancing.
“Studies have shown that plastic barriers can actually be harmful because they block proper ventilation of that space,” said Dr. Linsey Marr, a professor of environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and an authority on airborne disease transmission.
The coronavirus, Dr. Marr explained, is not primarily spread by large infected droplets that could be stopped by a plastic barrier, but by tiny particles called aerosols produced when you speak, shout or sing. Aerosols can easily float up and over five-foot barriers just as cigarette smoke does. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized that the coronavirus is primarily spread through airborne transmission.
“All of us in public health have been on the anti-Plexiglas crusade,” said Dr. El-Sadr. “Plexiglas is not protective.”
Other common-sense tips apply when choosing to eat indoors at restaurants. Avoid crowded times. Try to sit near a window. And steer clear of crowded indoor bars, which aren’t permitted yet. People can now sit at bars, but they can’t stand and drink, and groups must be six feet apart.
“There are still many more restrictions that need to be lifted before we go back to restaurant and bar activity like we remember it before the pandemic,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, an industry group.
What should I do everywhere else?
In its new guidance, the C.D.C. has said that vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask even when breathing heavily in an indoor group exercise class. But that remains one of the most risky indoor situations in the minds of epidemiologists, particularly for the immunocompromised or unvaccinated.
In New York, social-distancing rules will still apply at gyms, but following federal guidance, vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks unless the gym or locality mandates it.
Outdoors remains safer. If you do want to exercise indoors, look for a gym that has good airflow and filtration, social distance between patrons and masks when possible, experts said. Avoid crowded times and maybe go early, because aerosols — which are produced in larger numbers during exercise — can linger in indoor air.
“I wouldn’t go back to gyms, not anytime soon,” advised Dr. Brian Strom, the chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in New Jersey, who said he would consider a gym only if it mandated vaccines. “I just think gyms are just too high risk.”
Beauty salons have to continue to maintain social distancing rules between chairs. Though vaccinated salon workers and patrons can eschew masks, many salons may keep the requirement. These factors would mean that for vaccinated patrons, salons are low-risk, several epidemiologists said.
Takamichi Saeki, owner of Takamichi Hair, a high-end salon in NoLIta, said that he expects it will take time before both his patrons and his staff feel ready to move beyond the 11 stylist chairs he now has, in a space that can hold 22.
“I want to make sure my staff is comfortable, and my clients are comfortable,” he said. “I want to go step by step.”