New York state lifted nearly all remaining Covid-related restrictions on Tuesday, 15 months after a raging pandemic forced America’s biggest city into an unprecedented lockdown, decimated its small businesses and claimed the lives of more than 33,000 of its residents.
Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, announced the milestone in a soaring ceremony at One World Trade Center — the skyscraper rebuilt after the September 11 terror attacks — which was intended to have the feel of a victory declaration after a long war.
“Remember June 15, remember today! Because it is the day New York rose again,” Cuomo said.
New York took its decision on the same day that California, another centre of Covid devastation, also lifted most restrictions. Both states did so after the proportion of adults who have had at least one dose of a vaccine passed the 70 per cent mark recommended by public health authorities as a threshold for rolling back prevention measures.
As a result, masks and social distancing restrictions that have governed daily life in two of the most populous US states for more than a year will no longer be mandated at restaurants, cinemas, shops, sporting events, workplaces and other venues. Or, as Cuomo said: “We can now return to life as we know it.”
Masks will still be required on public transit since that is governed by federal rules.
The moves coincided with other green shoots of recovery. A survey released by the Business Roundtable showed that confidence among America’s top executives had reached near-record levels between the first and second quarters of the year. Its members are expecting the US economy to grow 5 per cent this year, up from previous predictions of 3.7 per cent, and an accompanying jump in hiring and investment.
New York City has been crawling towards normality since the darkest days of the pandemic more than a year ago, when life was at an eerie standstill and the wail of sirens — many ferrying Covid patients to overwhelmed hospitals — filled the air.
The reopening of New York and California comes despite a slowing national vaccination campaign, with the inoculation rate in some states falling significantly behind others. In Wyoming, Louisiana and Alabama, less than half of the adult population has had one dose, and case rates are above the national average.
US deaths attributed to Covid-19 surpassed 600,000 on Tuesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.
As new infections have dwindled in New York City, those restaurants that did not fail are again filling up. Apartment lease signings have surged in the past two months, albeit at reduced rents, and the city’s cultural life has begun to restart. Tickets have gone on sale for Broadway shows, one of New York’s biggest tourist draws, which are set to reopen in September.
But the return of workers to the city’s office towers, particularly in Midtown Manhattan, has been sluggish. Only 20.7 per cent of workers have done so, according to data from Kastle Systems, the office security company. That has raised questions about the viability of commercial neighbourhoods in a new era of remote working.
Several banks have ordered their employees back to their desks in the weeks ahead, and many executives believe that the office, the centre of the city’s economy, will substantially rebound by September.
Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, an employers group, said Tuesday’s announcement was “the greenlight that employers have been waiting for in order to bring employees back to the workplace”.