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Cuomo lifts COVID Orange and Yellow zone restrictions, except in NYC

Thomas O'Neil-White

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday announced the lifting of COVID-19-related restrictions in the state’s Orange and Yellow zones. He is also developing a plan to allow limited indoor dining in New York City.

“The micro-cluster zones are down all across the state," he said. "You look at where they where Erie County was: 7.8. They’re down to 5.1. So you see a drop in both the Orange and the Yellow zones. Given the progress they’ve made, the restrictions are lifted in those zones.”

Cuomo said the lifting of restrictions is due, in some part, to the way the state rebounded in the week after what he called the “holiday surge” from Thanksgiving through the New Year.

“I think at this point,” Cuomo said, “it’s safe to say the holiday surge was anticipated. The holiday surge did happen. But the holiday surge is over. If you look at the numbers over the past week, you see positivity [rates] on the decline. Our high point was 7.9%. We’re down to 5.6%.”

He did warn, however, that additional cases of the UK variant have been found in Niagara County, as well as Long Island, New York City, Westchester, Saratoga, Tompkins, Onondaga, Essex and Warren counties,. That brings the statewide total to 42 cases.

Cuomo and his aides developed the microcluster hot zones last fall as an attempt to contain the further spread of the coronavirus. But in recent months, businesses in those zones complained that they had to endure more restrictions than other areas where the positivity rate for the virus was even higher.

Yellow zone designations will remain in the Bronx, Queens, Newburgh and the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.

Businesses will still have to adhere to continuing statewide restrictions, according to Cuomo aide Gareth Rhodes. That includes a limit of 50% capacity for hair salons and other personal care services and 33% occupancy for gyms. Gatherings of more than 50 people are still prohibited in public spaces and no more than 10 people area allowed to gather in a private residence.

Some Rochester restaurant owners were pleased about the governor's decision to lift restrictions, but had concerns about a remaining rule that requires bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m.

Kelly Metras owns Nox and Salena's and is the president of the Rochester Chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association.  She’s optimistic that the changes will help Salena's, but Nox relies on late-night bar business for most of its revenue. 

Additionally, she said the problem that the industry is facing is larger than regulations.

“Our business is reliant on people coming out and spending their money and engaging and letting us entertain them," she said. "They're not comfortable doing that, which I totally understand.”

She said the bright side is that having her dining rooms open means taking on less debt to stay afloat.

Karrie Laughton, who owns Lux Lounge on South Avenue, said while she can reopen now, she's not sure that she should. Like Nox, her business makes most of its money after 9 p.m.

“I’m worried about making a bad decision. That does worry me,” Laughton said. “Although, at the same time, I have to make some kind of decision because I have employees that want to get back to work. That’s my biggest motivation, to be honest with you.”

She said she may take the risk in a few weeks for the sake of her employees.

Cuomo said by week’s end, he will release a plan to end a months-long ban on indoor dining in New York City, which the restaurant industry said has led to mass layoffs and numerous temporary or permanent business closures. 

“I fully understand how difficult it is that they are closed, not just for the restaurants but all the people who are employed there,” the governor said. “On the flip side is how fast this virus can take off.”

The New York State Restaurant Association, in a tweet, said the decision will have a “positive impact” and credited restaurants’ efforts on social media to convince Cuomo to change his mind.

The New York City Hospitality Alliance said in a statement that they are happy the governor “heard the voice of New York City’s decimated restaurant industry.” 

Cuomo admitted that the state, which is seeking a $15 billion bailout from the federal government to help balance its budget, could use the extra sales tax revenue.

The governor also applauded President Joe Biden’s announcement Tuesday that states will receive 16% more vaccine doses than they have been getting and that they will be notified of the number of doses three weeks in advance.

“Now we can actually plan,” Cuomo said. 

Cuomo said he’s also encouraged that the National Guard will now be made available to help states set up mass vaccination sites. He’s proposing that one be set up at Yankee Stadium. 

He continued to blame former President Donald Trump’s administration for glitches in New York’s vaccine signup programs, saying not enough vaccine was ordered to reach all 7 million New Yorkers who are now eligible.

Biden has said it could take six months for production to catch up and for enough doses to be available for everyone who wants to be vaccinated.

Watch Cuomo's entire briefing below:

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.
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