Indoor dining to resume in New York City on Valentine’s Day, Governor says

NEW YORK – New York City’s famous restaurant scene will reopen for indoor dining on Valentine’s Day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Friday, the latest announcement by a state to ease public health restrictions as a deadly increase in COVID-19 begins to decline.

Flattening hospitalization rates has prompted several states to relax public health restrictions, even as officials warn that cases could rise again and highly contagious strains of the virus from other countries are appearing in the United States.

« We were expecting this increase, we handled it and we are on the other side, » Cuomo said in a briefing to announce the restaurant openings.

The measure to allow restaurant service on February 14 comes as news that a new vaccine from pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson is 85 percent effective in protecting people against the most serious forms of the disease.

The vaccine, which has not yet been approved for use in the United States or the European Union, is 66 percent effective in preventing infection even against multiple variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It offers health officials another weapon to cope with the pandemic at a time when demand for the other two approved vaccines far outstrips supply.

In New York on Friday, a line of mostly older people waiting to receive a vaccine made by Moderna spilled in the cold of January at a school-turned vaccination center operated by SOMOS Community Care, a network of doctors that serves to Medicaid patients.

While the site had enough supply to vaccinate this week, Dr. Jacqueline Delmont, SOMOS’s chief medical officer, said it was unclear if it would be restocked by next week.

States and cities receive vaccine allocations from the federal government on a weekly basis, and New York City has been struggling with a shortage that has caused some appointments to be rescheduled in the past week.

The United States continues to be devastated by the ongoing pandemic, reporting 25.83 million cases and 433,521 deaths as of midnight Thursday. But the number of people hospitalized, a key metric of the spread and severity of the disease, fell for the ninth day in a row on Thursday to 104,862, the lowest number since Dec. 8.

‘Good news’ but still difficult

In New York, restaurant owners welcomed new rules that will allow them to resume dining indoors at 25 percent of capacity, and will also allow some wedding venues to open. But the New York Hospitality Alliance said Thursday that struggling business owners were disappointed they couldn’t open right away.

« It is good news that Governor Cuomo has heard the voice of New York City’s struggling restaurant industry and is lifting the ban on eating indoors, » the organization said on its website. « However, restaurants are heartbroken because they need to wait two weeks for Valentine’s Day to open with only 25 percent full. »

While the increase in cases driven by holiday gatherings appeared to have slowed, public health experts warn that cases could rise again unless Americans wear masks and practice social distancing.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a television interview on Friday that it was unclear how widespread the South African variant is in the United States. Still, its detection in South Carolina was concerning and pointed to the need for wider use of masks as vaccines increase.

« The presumption at this point is that there has been a community spread of this strain, » he told the NBC News « Today » show.

In Oklahoma, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has fallen 34 percent in the past two weeks, with 1,375 admitted as of Thursday, according to a . tally.

But Dr. Syed Naqvi, a pulmonologist at SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City, said the sheer volume of seriously ill patients is still difficult to manage.

“The disease is real. Unfortunately, the misery is real. We have and we see that patients die every day, ”Naqvi said.

By Peter Szekely and Sharon Bernstein