Everything We Do and Don’t Know About New York’s Reopening

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo holds up a face mask at a news conference on May 21. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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As of August 14, all of New York’s 10 regions are in the fourth and theoretically final phase of a four-phase reopening process following the statewide coronavirus lockdown; New York City was the last the enter Phase Four on July 20, while every other region had been in Phase Four for weeks.

Map of New York’s ten regions. Photo: Handout/Empire State Development website

What happens in the four reopening phases?

Regions are to reopen in four phases, prioritizing industries that pose the lowest risk of infection for employees and customers. The details of each phase are not necessarily set in stone, either, as the state has already made adjustments to the original guidelines, like adding outdoor dining to phase two.

Originally, the plan was for state and regional officials to evaluate the outcomes of the reopening phases over two-week periods and decide whether the region can move onto the next one, but each phase will not necessarily last only two weeks.

Here is where the phase plans currently stand:

Phase One allowed construction, manufacturing, and wholesale supply-chain businesses to reopen, as well as many retailers for curbside pickup, in-store pickup, or drop-off. Phase-one retail categories included clothing and shoes, electronics and appliances, web and mail order, florists, jewelry, luggage, and sporting goods, among others. Malls remained closed. (Many nonessential retail businesses throughout the state were already offering curbside pickup ahead of the reopening, but not all.)

Agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting businesses can also resume, as can landscaping and gardening businesses, drive-in movie theaters, and low-risk recreational activities like socially distant sports such as tennis.

Phase Two allowed a greater range of businesses to reopen, including: offices, outdoor dining, places of worship (at 25 percent capacity), and storefront retailers and businesses in the professional-services, finance and insurance, administrative support, and real-estate and rental-leasing industries.

Salons and barbershops were also allowed able reopen in phase two with limited capacity, as were car dealerships. For retail, malls will remain closed.

Phase Three focuses on the hospitality industry, allowing restaurants and other food-service businesses to reopen for dine-in service at 50 percent capacity. (In New York City, however, indoor dining will not be allowed in this phase.) Diners are required to be separated by at least six feet or by a barrier when that’s not possible, and must wear masks until they sit down. Gatherings of as many as 25 people, up from 10, are also allowed under this phase.

Phase Four, the final phase, allows schools and low-risk arts, entertainment, and recreation businesses to reopen — all with social distancing required — but not indoor dining, movie theaters, or shopping malls. Gatherings of up to 50 people will also be allowed.

Phase Five? Governor Cuomo has cautioned that with the outbreaks intensifying around the country, the overall situation remained fluid — but he has not indicated that the state will add another phase. With several industries remaining closed in phase four, there may need to be another phase subsequently. Cuomo has said the state is watching what is happening in other reopened states in order to determine whether New York needs to adjust its own plan.

What is going on with New York City?

New York City began phase four on July 20, and more and more types of businesses have been been added to the reopening since them. Here’s what’s now reopened, and what still isn’t:

Bowling alleys set to return on August 17 at 50 percent capacity
Governor Cuomo has announced that bowling alleys, statewide, will be able to reopen on Monday, August 17, provided they limit capacity to 50 percent, require masks, separate bowling parties by a (closed) lane, and only serve food and drinks that are delivered to parties at their lane — in order to minimize the movement of people inside the alleys.

Museums and aquariums can return on August 24
Across the state, museums and aquariums will be able to reopen, at 25 percent capacity, with mandated face masks and timed entry, on August 24. According to NBC New York, the American Museum of Natural History has been planning to reopen on September 2, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been aiming to reopen on August 29.

No indoor dining or drinking yet
Though indoor dining was set to begin in phase three, Cuomo announced that the practice would be suspended until further notice, following a surge in new cases in states in which more indoor activities have been allowed.

Eating out, with alcohol, outside
Outdoor-only, socially distanced dining returned at bars and restaurants during phase two. The city allowed restaurants to expand their curbside seating space, using the roadside along the curb, converted parking spaces, streets closed as a part of the Open Streets program, and pedestrian plazas for dining. The city’s Open Restaurants initiative has been extended through Halloween.

Drinking outside without food has been re-restricted, plus a three-strike rule for violating venues
On July 16, state officials prohibited the sale of alcohol unless food is also being consumed as part of an effort to crack down on crowds of young people that have recently been assembling and drinking at outdoor venues and outside of indoor bars.

A new three-strike protocol was also announced. Any venue with three COVID protocol violations will be automatically closed, as will any venue that commits an especially serious violation, regardless of how they had up to that point. Governor Cuomo has also threatened to re-close all the city’s restaurants and bars if compliance doesn’t improve.

Zoos and botanical gardens
All four New York City zoos and the New York Botanical Garden reopened at the end of July at 33 percent capacity, as did the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in early August.

Malls remain closed
Because of fears of indoor transmission of the coronavirus, New York City’s malls are not able to reopen.

Pro-sports are back, but without fans
Major League Baseball, without fans, returned on July 23. Other leagues resuming their seasons are not playing games inside the city.

Television and movie production is back
New York City is once again open to the entertainment industry as of Phase Four, provided COVID-19 precautions are taken.

Nail salons and tattoo parlors
Nail and tanning salons and tattoo and massage parlors can open at 50 percent capacity, provided that employees wear masks and that workstations are disinfected for each new customer.

Outdoor recreation
In phase three, outdoor sports like basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, handball, and boccie can resume. Dog runs will also reopen.

Returning to the cubicle
Offices reopened at limited capacity in phase two. For more on what that entails, skip down to the section on office requirements.

You can take your pet to the vet
Veterinary practices have also been allowed to reopen statewide.

Spas and salons
Barber shops and hair salons reopened in phase two. Nail, tanning, and waxing salons, massage businesses and spas, and massage, tattoo, and piercing parlors will reopen in phase three.

Theaters shopping malls aren’t reopening anytime soon
It’s not clear when these businesses will be able to reopen in the city.

Public transportation
Subway service has returned to its normal schedule, but the subway system will still be shut down for overnight cleaning from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. for the foreseeable future.

The locks were removed at the start of phase two.

What is already open or once again allowed statewide?

Small gatherings came back on May 22
All New York residents can once again gather in small, socially distanced groups of ten people or fewer “for any lawful purpose or reason,” Cuomo announced on May 22. The seemingly ahead-of-schedule move came after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit over Cuomo allowing gatherings of ten or fewer people for religious ceremonies to mark Memorial Day, but no one else.

Parks and beaches
State parks, beaches, and lakeshores in New York (and beaches in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware) have all reopened, mostly at reduced capacity, provided visitors adhere to social-distancing protocols.

New York City beaches
All New York City beaches are open for swimming as of July 1. Visitors must remain social distanced and cannot congregate or play sports.

Long Island beaches
Some beaches on Long Island have been restricted to county residents only, so would-be visitors should check for restrictions before hitting the sand.

Campgrounds and RV parks have been allowed to reopen statewide.

Horse-racing tracks and the Watkins Glen International auto-racing track reopened, without fans, on June 1.

On August 17, Governor Cuomo announced that gyms in New York would be able to open on August 24 at 33 percent capacity, if visitors fill out contact-tracing forms and wear masks at all times, and facilities employ HVAC ventilation systems to filter the air to help prevent transmission. Local leaders can delay the opening until September 2, and beyond if necessary. “If the locality can get the inspections done or be ready to inspect, they can open August 24,” Cuomo explained. “If the locality cannot get ready to do inspections, then they get another week. They can do it September 2.” Towns and cities can also determine whether or not they choose to allow exercise classes.

Shortly after the governor’s announcement, Mayor Bill de Blasio stated that indoor classes and indoor pools will remain closed for the time being.

Do businesses all know what phase they get to reopen in?

The state is encouraging businesses to use an online lookup tool to determine what category they fit into and whether they are currently allowed to reopen.

Reopened Offices

Employers will obviously be in contact with their employees regarding individual offices’ reopening plans and schedules, but offices will be able to reopen during phase two, provided they do so at 50 percent capacity and businesses follow a number of mandatory guidelines, including:

  • Proper social distancing — which means six feet between office occupants at all times and social-distancing markers denoting the proper spacing.
  • When six-foot spacing is not possible, workers must wear acceptable face coverings, which include “cloth (e.g., homemade sewn, quick cut, bandana), surgical masks, and face shields,” which employers must provide free of charge to all employees and train them how to use — and face coverings cannot be shared or reused unless they are properly cleaned first.
  • Businesses should reduce on-site workforces and interpersonal contact and congregation as much as possible by adjusting or staggering work hours.
  • Elevators and vehicles must be limited to one person at a time, unless the occupants are wearing face masks, and the confined space is limited to 50 percent capacity.
  • Shared workstations must be disinfected between users but should be limited-use to begin with.
  • Per the state, businesses must also “limit the sharing of objects, such as tools, laptops, notebooks, telephones, touchscreens, and writing utensils, as well as the touching of shared surfaces; or, require workers to wear gloves when in contact with shared objects or frequently touched surfaces; or, require workers to perform hand hygiene before and after contact.”
  • In-person gatherings must be limited, meaning that meetings and such should still be conducted virtually as much as possible. Essential in-person meetings must occur in socially distanced, well-ventilated areas.
  • Nonessential common areas, like workplace gyms, must remain closed.
  • The state is suggesting, though not mandating, other best practices for offices, including that workspaces be reconfigured to best implement social-distancing protocols; that businesses require strict clean-desk policies; that bidirectional foot traffic is limited in aisles; and that nonessential amenities and community areas be closed.

On June 6, Cuomo also announced that commercial buildings would be allowed to check the temperature of anyone entering their buildings — though the effectiveness of that practice remains open to debate.

When will schools reopen?

On July 13, Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out the criteria for reopening schools in New York State. A region must be in phase four and the area’s daily infection rate, on a 14 day average, must be below five percent.

The guidance, put together by the State Education Department, came with a raft of safety guidelines for when schools reopen, including mandatory masking, daily temperature checks, and a focus on cleaning classrooms, buses, and common areas.

The key decision, about whether schools open in-person at all this year, will not be made until the first week of August. Until then, local districts will develop plans on how to reopen. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced his plan last week. It centers on a “blended learning” model that has students in the classroom two or three days of the week and learning from home on the other days.

What are the general requirements for all reopening businesses?

Cuomo has emphasized that all businesses should begin working on their reopening plans immediately. In order to reopen, they must also meet the following criteria:

  • Strict cleaning and sanitation standards must be met.
  • Social-distancing protocols must be in place, and workplace hours and shifts must be designed so as to reduce the density of people working at the business.
  • Mandatory face masks for all employees and customers in situations where there is frequent, unavoidable person-to-person contact.
  • Coronavirus cases must be traced, tracked, and reported to regional public-health officials.
  • Nonessential travel must be restricted for employees.
  • Liability processes must be in place (but it’s not clear what this will actually entail yet).

Who is going to enforce the requirements?

The details of enforcement remain unclear, but local governments will undoubtedly be responsible for making sure businesses follow the rules, and the state is encouraging residents to report violations. Face-mask mandates may yet prove controversial as they have in some other parts of the country.

When will routine health care, dental care, and other health services be available again?

Elective surgeries are once again available, but New Yorkers should of course consult their physicians and individual health-care facilities. Dental practices have been allowed to reopen statewide.

When can you go shopping inside a nonessential retail store again?

In-store half-capacity retail returns in phase two everywhere but not at indoor shopping malls.

When can you finally get that haircut you desperately need?

Hair salons and barbershops were able to reopen in phase two, so shaggy New York City residents can finally go get a haircut.

When can you attend group religious services?

As of June 7, places of worship can reopen at 25 percent capacity so long as they are in a region that has entered phase two.

What about travel between regions in different phases?

The reopening plan says that regions should not allow businesses to reopen if they prove to be a draw for large numbers of nonlocal visitors, but it’s not clear what the metrics for that will be. The plan also says that regions must coordinate reopening plans with surrounding regions, but again, it’s not clear how that will actually play out.

What requirements must each New York region meet to begin/continue reopening?

In order to reopen, regions must first meet (or continue to meet) a variety of criteria, including, most importantly, these seven health-related benchmarks regarding infection, death, and hospitalization rates, health-care-system capacity, and test-and-trace capacity.

Hospitalization and death rates

  • A 14-day decline in coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths from the virus on a three-day rolling average.
  • 15 or fewer total new confirmed cases of COVID-19 or five or fewer new deaths from the coronavirus on a three-day rolling average.
  • Fewer than two new coronavirus patients admitting to hospitals per 100,000 residents.
  • As of June 22, New York reported 10 deaths, the lowest number since mid-March.

Health-care capacity, after elective surgeries resume

  • 30 percent of both total hospital beds and ICU beds must be available.
  • Hospitals must have a 90-day stockpile of PPE.

Testing and contact tracing

In order to reopen, regions must have:

  • Capacity to conduct 30 diagnostic tests per month for every 1,000 residents, via an appropriate number of well-advertised testing sites depending on the region’s population, and testing needs to prioritize people who show symptoms or have been in contact with people with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
  • At least 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents, or more if projections warrant that.

Regions must must also continue to make sure essential workers are protected and have set up a regional control room to monitor all indicators of progress throughout the reopening phases. They will need to collect and evaluate their infection-rate data, and test-and trace programs and the reopening of public-transportation systems and schools must be coordinated with surrounding regions.

The progress of the regions in the seven health-related benchmarks is being tracked by the state on a regional monitoring dashboard.

What happens if a reopening region experiences a new outbreak and no longer meets the requirements?

It’s still not clear how state and regional officials will handle that if it happens.

What impact will the mass protests over the killing of George Floyd have?

Data from around the country nearly a month after Floyd’s killing, suggest no link between the protests and increase coronavirus cases. Public-health officials have attributed this to protesters wearing face coverings and the demonstrations taking place outdoors, where the virus is much less likely to spread.

Where can you get tested for the coronavirus?

The state has set up a website for locating nearby test sites (for both current infections and coronavirus antibodies). Free testing is available to all residents of New York City.

Is there any kind of official certification or benefit available for people who have already been infected with the coronavirus and recovered?

No — nor is there conclusive evidence, at least yet, as to how much immunity the presence of coronavirus antibodies will confer.

This post has been updated throughout to reflect new information.

What We Do and Don’t Know About New York’s Reopening Plan