ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that he was erasing the handful of remaining "orange zones" in the state where tougher pandemic restrictions had been in place because of the fast spread of COVID-19.
The Democrat cited a post-holiday dip in the number of infections, after a period in which rates had surged to more than 114,000 new cases in one week.
Eliminating the zones will allow those restaurants to again offer indoor dining, albeit at half capacity.
Indoor dining is still banned in all of New York City, but Cuomo promised to come up with a plan by Friday to address how restaurants might reopen that service, too. His administration is considering whether to again allow indoor dining in the city at 25% capacity.
The orange zones had been in central and western New York, Staten Island and Westchester County. Cuomo said he's launching several yellow zones, which require schools to launch testing programs, in certain New York City neighborhoods and a part of Orange County where hospitalizations and infections are increasing.
During the past seven days, the state has averaged around 12,800 new infections per day, a rate it last recorded in late December.
His Wednesday announcement came as the national vaccination campaign has moved slowly and concern remains over the emergence of more contagious variants of the virus.
Over the last seven days, New York had the sixth-highest rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita among the 50 states. And New York has recorded nearly 5,000 COVID-19 deaths in hospitals and nursing homes over the past 30 days — the highest since May 31.
Cuomo defended his decision to lift the state's orange zone restrictions as a way to protect the economy.
"We're talking about livelihoods and the economy and billions of dollars," he said. "We make decisions based on the facts today… The holiday surge came. The holiday surge is over. We're not back to where we were but nobody's back to where we were."
Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, said it's unfair that indoor dining is banned in New York City while other parts of the state have higher infection rates.
The governor tried this fall to target the strictest pandemic restrictions on businesses, schools and houses of worship in places where high rates of people were testing positive.
But his plan faced a lot of pushback. Religious groups won court victories arguing his limits on houses of worship were unconstitutional.
Gyms successfully pushed to be allowed to open at 25% capacity in orange zones, while Cuomo ended up allowing hair and nail salons to reopen as long as they tested employees weekly.
Cuomo also previously allowed schools to remain open in orange zones if they launched testing programs.
Now, outside of the yellow zones, the entire state faces most of the same COVID-19 restrictions: from a 10-person limit on private residential gatherings, to a 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars, to a 50% capacity limit for houses of worship.
New York has limited weddings and other "non-residential gatherings" in yellow zones to a maximum of 25 people, compared to 50 statewide.