New York governor lifts remaining COVID-19 restrictions, calls it a ‘momentous day’

By Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -New York is lifting all state-mandated coronavirus restrictions after reporting that 70% of the state’s adults have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday.

“It is an important milestone, and we’re going to keep pushing to do more,” Cuomo told a news conference, adding that the state would continue to encourage more New Yorkers to get vaccinated.

Restrictions across commercial and social settings will be lifted immediately. Cuomo said some limitations based on guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would remain in place, with mitigation measures still required in public transit and healthcare settings.

Cuomo, whose state was the epicenter of the U.S. COVID-19 public health crisis last year, also said individuals and businesses could still choose to adopt some precautions.

The governor, who won praise in the early days of the pandemic for his televised news conferences but later became entangled in accusations of sexual misconduct, abuse of power and allegations of mishandling nursing homes during the crisis, made a triumphant entrance at the World Trade Center in New York City on Tuesday to mark what he called a “momentous day.”

“New York State has fully vaccinated a larger share of adults than any other big state in the country,” he told a cheering crowd that included first responders and hospitality workers.

On Tuesday night, fireworks all across the state will celebrate the milestone, Cuomo announced, and the Empire State Building and other state landmarks will be lit in blue and gold, New York’s colors.

Most U.S. states have moved to ease or lift coronavirus restrictions as the virus abates and vaccinations progress.

New York joined California, where restrictions including physical distancing, mask requirements and capacity limits for restaurants, stores and other businesses that cater to consumers end on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen in New York, Editing by Will Dunham, Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)

Giant drone sculpture menaces New York City, with intent

By Aleksandra Michalska

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A giant, white sculpture of a drone has appeared 25 feet (7.6 m) over Manhattan’s High Line park, unnerving New Yorkers – which was the creators’ intention.

Sam Durant, the artist behind the fiberglass “Untitled (drone),” said the work was designed to “remind the public that drones and surveillance are a tragic and pervasive presence in the daily lives of many living outside – and within – the United States.”

The white sculpture of the predator drone stands out against the blue summer skies, appearing to hover over 10th Avenue, and rotating on its pole when pushed by the wind.

“What we want to do with High Line Art is to bring to the public not just beautiful artworks, but also thought provoking artworks that can generate conversations,” said Cecilia Alemani, chief curator of High Line Art, which sponsored Durant’s work.

California resident Ariella Figueroa said the drone made her think about the future.

“It’s the same technology that we were using in Iraq and Afghanistan 10, 12 years ago that is now handheld and anyone can buy,” said Figueroa. “It’s a little intimidating, a little scary, especially here in New York City.”

(Reporting by Aleksandra Michalska, Writing by Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

New York lifts mask requirements for the vaccinated, California waits

By Jonathan Allen and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) -New York state this week will drop face mask requirements in most public spaces for people vaccinated against COVID-19, conforming with the latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom said his state would keep its mask order in place for another month, despite the CDC’s new recommendations.

Cuomo and Newsom, both Democrats, have drawn criticism for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Newsom faces a Republican-led recall election.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, also a Democrat, said he would lift mask restrictions outdoors but keep in place a mandate to wear them indoors. Murphy said schools would be required to provide full-time, in-person classroom instruction again in the fall.

On Saturday, the CDC said students in schools across the United States wear masks for the 2020-2021 academic year because not all will be inoculated.

New York will still order public transportation riders to wear face coverings and mandate them in schools and some other communal settings, Cuomo said, adding: “Unvaccinated people should continue to wear a mask.”

Cuomo said New York health officials decided to lift the mask order after reviewing the CDC’s new guidance. Some 52 percent of New York adults have been fully inoculated and 61.8 percent had received at least one shot as of Monday.

Cuomo, speaking to reporters at Radio City Music Hall, said it would be up to each business or venue how they should determine vaccination status

“I’m sure when people are coming into Radio City Music Hall, they are going to ask, ‘I’m sitting next to someone. I don’t know who they are. Are you sure they were vaccinated?'” he said. “That’s why it’s on the operator’s best interest to say ‘Yes! They had a card and they were checked when they walked in the door.'”

The three-term governor said he expected that some New Yorkers might keep wearing masks as a precaution after this week’s rule change.

Cuomo, 63, has resisted calls to resign in the face of probes by the state attorney general and legislature over accusations of sexual harassment, his office’s reporting of nursing home deaths and his use of staff members and resources in the writing of a book on his handling of the pandemic.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Barbara Goldberg in New York and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

New York to require vaccinations of state university students attending classes this fall

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Students at the State University of New York and the City University of New York must get vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend classes this fall, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

The requirement, affecting more than 435,000 full-time students, comes as Cuomo and other officials offer a slew of incentives aimed at encouraging people to get inoculated as they see vaccine demand declining.

“So, today, no excuses,” Cuomo said at a briefing. “SUNY and CUNY boards will require vaccinations for all in-person students coming back to school in the fall.”

Cuomo, who has ultimate authority over New York City’s subways, also announced that riders will get free seven-day passes to the system for getting inoculated at station sites that will dispense Johnson & Johnson vaccine starting on Wednesday.

The city’s suburban commuter rail services, the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North, will offer two system-wide one-way passes for riders who receive a shot at their station site, he added.

“So think about this,” the governor said. “You are walking into the subway station anyway. You are walking past the vaccination site. It’s a one-shot vaccination. Stop, take a few minutes, get the vaccine.”

Cuomo, who last week announced a ticket-for-shot arrangement with the state’s Major League Baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets, said half of the tickets for upcoming New York Islanders National Hockey League playoff games would be reserved for vaccinated fans.

The requirements and incentives come as New York showed huge progress against the virus since a January surge, with its COVID-19 hospitalizations down 75% and its positivity rate down 82% at 1.4%.

While more than 60% of the state’s adult population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, Cuomo, who also chairs the National Governors Association, said the pace was declining in New York and across the country.

Earlier on Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that a range of city attractions, including Lincoln Center, the Bronx Zoo and the Staten Island Ferry, will offer free admission in exchange for getting coronavirus shots.

“It’s true that the supply has finally gotten to a point that it exceeds the demand,” de Blasio said.

The strategy for reaching the unvaccinated will include more incentives and making the inoculations more accessible with mobile units and pop-up sites, de Blasio said.

As of Sunday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 45.8% of the country’s population and 58% of those aged 18 and older had received at least one dose.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Berkrot and Nick Zieminski)

New York Yankees, Mets to give tickets to fans who get vaccinated at their parks, Cuomo says

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York’s Major League Baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets, will give free tickets to fans who get vaccinated for the coronavirus at their ballparks before the games, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday.

“If you get a vaccination, they will give you a free ticket to the game,” Cuomo said at a press briefing.

In a further move toward returning the country’s largest city to pre-pandemic normality, Cuomo also announced that tickets to Broadway shows would go on sale on Thursday for performances beginning on Sept. 14.

Curtains at New York City’s Broadway theaters, which have been mostly dark since March 2020, will go up on a rolling basis but all of them plan to be open in September, state budget director Robert Mujica said.

The offer of free baseball tickets, which follows several other vaccine incentives promoted by state and local officials, also comes with a plan starting May 19 to separate vaccinated from unvaccinated spectators, Cuomo said.

The baseball stadiums would be divided into sections where vaccinated fans could fill the seats without restrictions, while those who have not been vaccinated would need to stay in areas where seating is limited to 33% of capacity, he said.

“So, if you’re vaccinated that’s one category, you’re unvaccinated, that’s another category,” Cuomo said.

“For unvaccinated people, the six-foot distancing applies, with masks,” he said, adding that fans would need to show proof of vaccination, including the state’s “Excelsior Pass,” to be admitted to the ball parks’ unrestricted areas.

The pre-game inoculation sites will use the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he said.

Like some other elected officials, Cuomo said the baseball tickets were part of an effort prompted by recent slowdowns in the pace of people getting vaccinated, which can be done in New York without appointments.

The battle for the arms of yet-to-be vaccinated will be won with goodies such as free admission to New York’s Museum of Natural History, where visitors can get their shots under the giant blue whale, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday.

“We’re gonna be looking to do incentives just like that to give people great opportunities when they get vaccinated,” de Blasio told a briefing.

In Chicago, a series of monthly concerts will be offered only to fully vaccinated people, starting on May 22. The third largest U.S. city is expected to offer a “vax pass” to concerts and other events to incentive people to get vaccinated.

In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy unveiled a plan to ramp up vaccinations, called “Operation Jersey Summer,” which includes “Grateful for the Shot,” a plan to get people to go directly from religious services to a vaccination site.

It also includes “Shot and a Beer,” with 13 New Jersey breweries offering a free beer to anyone age 21 and older who can show they received a vaccination in May.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and other conservative governors have barred the use of so-called “vaccine passports” that would bestow privileges on people who have been inoculated.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Alistair Bell)

Most capacity limits to end in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut on May 19

(Reuters) -Most coronavirus capacity restrictions on businesses in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, including retail stores, food services and gyms, will end on May 19, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

Cuomo said a steady decline in the positive rate of COVID-19 tests and hospitalizations across the state showed it was time to begin the reopening process. The percentage of New Yorkers testing positive for the coronavirus dropped 50% over the last month, and hospitalizations decreased by 37% during the same period, he told a news conference.

“New Yorkers have made tremendous progress,” Cuomo said. “It’s time to readjust the decision made on the science and on the data.”

Other businesses that will no longer be subject to state-imposed capacity restrictions are amusement parks, salons and offices. The governor also announced that the New York City subway will resume its 24-hour service beginning on May 17.

All businesses can still set their own capacity restrictions.

Certain protocols such as maintaining six feet of space between people will remain in place, Cuomo said, in line with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. Exceptions can be made at venues where people will have shown proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, he said.

The May 19 reopening preempts the plan New York Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined just days ago to re-open his city fully on July 1. De Blasio said on Thursday that his city could soon return to normal thanks to the progress of the vaccine rollout, noting 6.4 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the city of more than 8 million residents.

New York’s move comes just over a year after businesses across the state closed down and limited capacity to combat one of the country’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks. It follows updated guidance released by the CDC last week, which said people do not need to wear masks outdoors where social distancing is possible.

Florida Governor Ron Desantis on Monday also announced he was signing an executive order that overruled and suspended all local COVID-19 emergency orders, saying that widespread vaccination made it safe to do so.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Evans)

New York mayor says city will ‘fully reopen’ on July 1

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday that officials plan to “fully reopen” the city on July 1 after more than a year of coronavirus-induced closures and low-intensity operations.

“We are ready for stores to open for businesses to open offices, theaters — full strength,” de Blasio said on MSNBC.

The mayor said much of the reason for his optimism for the country’s largest city being able to get back to a normal level of operating was that 6.3 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the city of some 8.3 million people.

“What we’re seeing is people have gotten vaccinated in extraordinary numbers,” he said. “We know the vaccination effort is going to grow and grow,” he added “We’ve got to keep working hard at that.”

It was not immediately clear how the mayor’s plans would square with those of the state government, which has control over operating restrictions on restaurants and other businesses.

Broadway theaters have started to reopen this month for special events in front of limited indoor audiences. Many producers have targeted June 1 for their reopening dates.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

Biden to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, officials say

By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden plans to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, 20 years to the day after the al Qaeda attacks that triggered America’s longest war, U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

The disclosure of the plan came on the same day that the U.S. intelligence community released a gloomy outlook for Afghanistan, forecasting “low” chances of a peace deal this year and warning that its government would struggle to hold the Taliban insurgency at bay if the U.S.-led coalition withdraws support.

Biden’s decision would miss a May 1 deadline for withdrawal agreed to with the Taliban by his predecessor Donald Trump. The insurgents had threatened to resume hostilities against foreign troops if that deadline was missed. But Biden would still be setting a near-term withdrawal date, potentially allaying Taliban concerns.

The Democratic president will publicly announce his decision on Wednesday, the White House said. A senior Biden administration official said the pullout would begin before May 1 and could be complete well before the Sept. 11 deadline. Significantly, it will not would be subject to further conditions, including security or human rights.

“The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe in staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in a briefing with reporters.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to discuss the decision with NATO allies in Brussels on Wednesday, sources said.

Biden’s decision suggests he has concluded that the U.S. military presence will no longer be decisive in achieving a lasting peace in Afghanistan, a core Pentagon assumption that has long underpinned American troop deployments there.

“There is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process,” the senior administration official said.

The U.S. intelligence report, which was sent to Congress, stated: “Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.”

The Taliban declined comment, saying the group has not been notified of the U.S. decision.

The May 1 deadline had already started to appear less and less likely in recent weeks, given the lack of preparations on the ground to ensure it could be done safely and responsibly. U.S. officials have also blamed the Taliban for failing to live up to commitments to reduce violence and some have warned about persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks, when hijackers slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, killing almost 3,000 people. The Biden administration has said al Qaeda does not pose a threat to the U.S. homeland now.

‘ABANDON THE FIGHT’

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of planning to “turn tail and abandon the fight in Afghanistan.” It was Trump, a Republican, who had agreed to the May 1 withdrawal.

“Precipitously withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan is a grave mistake,” McConnell said, adding that effective counter-terrorism operations require presence and partners on the ground.

There currently are about 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011. About 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in the course of the Afghan conflict and many thousands more wounded.

It remains unclear how Biden’s move would impact a planned 10-day summit starting April 24 about Afghanistan in Istanbul that is due to include the United Nations and Qatar. Taliban representatives have not yet committed to attend.

Officials in Afghanistan are bracing for the withdrawal.

“We will have to survive the impact of it and it should not be considered as Taliban’s victory or takeover,” said a senior Afghan government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Although successive U.S. presidents sought to extricate themselves from Afghanistan, those hopes were confounded by concerns about Afghan security forces, endemic corruption in Afghanistan and the resiliency of a Taliban insurgency that enjoyed safe haven across the border in Pakistan.

Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States could cut off financial assistance to Afghanistan “if there is backsliding on civil society, the rights that women have achieved.” Under previous Taliban rule, the rights of women and girls were curtailed.

Democratic Senator Jack Reed, chairman of Senate Armed Services, called it a very difficult decision for Biden.

“There is no easy answer,” Reed said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland, Trevor Hunnicutt, Patricia Zengerle and Jonathan Landay in Washington, Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Editing by Will Dunham)

New York and Virginia take steps to legalize marijuana

(Reuters) -New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill on Wednesday to legalize adult use of marijuana, making it the 15th U.S. state to allow recreational use of the drug, while Virginia moved to legalize possession of small amounts by July.

Cuomo said the bill, which was approved by the state Assembly late on Tuesday night, would also wipe the slate clean for many people previously charged with marijuana crimes.

“The bill creates automatic expungement of previous marijuana convictions that would now be legal,” Cuomo wrote on Twitter, announcing that he had just signed the legislation. “This is a historic day.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam proposed moving up the legalization of simple possession of marijuana to July rather than wait until 2024.

Northam said racial disparities in prosecution of marijuana-related crimes prompted him to accelerate the timetable. He cited a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission which found that Black residents were more than three times as likely to be arrested for possessing small amounts of the drug.

“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Northam said in a statement.

NORML, a pro-marijuana group, earlier welcomed the news from New York state, saying that tens of thousands of New Yorkers were arrested every year over petty marijuana offenses, and that most were young, poor, and people of color.

“The legalization of marijuana is a racial and criminal justice imperative, and today’s vote is a critical step towards a fairer and more just system,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.

New York state’s official website recently projected that tax collection from the adult-use cannabis program would reach $350 million annually and also create 30,000 to 60,000 new jobs across the state.

(Reporting by Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Michael Perry and Bernadette Baum)

U.S. Supreme Court weighs taking up major gun rights case

By Andrew Chung

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday discussed taking up a major new gun rights case involving a National Rifle Association-backed challenge to a New York state law that restricts the ability of residents to carry concealed handguns in public.

It was among the cases on the agenda at the private weekly conference of the justices. There is heightened concern about gun violence in the United States following a pair of mass shootings in a span of a week, one in Georgia and the other in Colorado, that killed a total of 18 people.

Two gun owners and the New York affiliate of the NRA, an influential gun rights group closely aligned with Republicans, are asking the justices to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling throwing out their challenge to a policy that requires a state resident to show “proper cause” to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun outside the home.

Lower courts rejected the argument made by plaintiffs that the restrictions violated the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

The Supreme Court is not expected to announce whether it will take action on the appeal until Monday at the earliest.

If the justices do eventually take up the case and hear oral arguments, they would once again step into a swirling debate over gun rights in a nation that has a gun fatality rate consistently higher than other rich countries.

Democratic President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged the Senate to approve two bills passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on March 11 that would broaden background checks on gun buyers. Biden also called for a national ban on assault-style weapons, while the White House said he is considering executive actions to address gun violence that would not require the approval of Congress.

Numerous mass shootings in the United States have failed to spur the U.S. Congress to pass gun control legislation sought by Democrats, thanks in large part to opposition from congressional Republicans and the NRA.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority is seen as holding an expansive view of Second Amendment rights.

The New York case, if accepted, could lead to the most consequential ruling on the scope of the Second Amendment in more than a decade. The court in a landmark 2008 ruling recognized for the first time an individual’s right to keep guns at home for self-defense, and in 2010 applied that right to the states.

The plaintiffs in the New York case are asking for that right to be extended beyond the home. A ruling against New York could force lower courts to cast a skeptical eye on new or existing gun control laws.

Under New York’s law on carrying concealed handguns, a resident may obtain licenses that are restricted to hunting and target practice, or if they hold certain jobs such as a bank messenger or correctional officer. But to carry a concealed handgun without restriction, an applicant must convince a firearms licensing officer of an actual – rather than merely speculative – need for self-defense.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)