LONG ISLAND, NY — With the coronavirus vaccine still months away from being distributed to most New Yorkers and critical mass possibly not reached until the end of 2021, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state health officials have approved a plan to allow fans back at the stadium for a Buffalo Bills playoff game in January.
The goal is to see how science and testing can be used to allow the economy to reopen safely, Cuomo said. "We can't keep the economy closed until the vaccine hits critical mass," he said.
The plan would allow 6,700 fans to attend playoff games if they test negative for the coronavirus. Once inside Bills Stadium, fans will be required to wear masks, practice social distancing and provide contact tracing information, or they will be asked to leave, officials said. All exits and entrances will be monitored and ushers will be onhand to enforce critical social distancing mandates because, Cuomo said, "These events are prime for viral spread."
Fans will be seated in pods, separated from other pods by rows and seats, according to the plan.
Fans have been banned from Bills Stadium this season due to coronavirus concerns.
"No state has done this before," Cuomo said, of the pilot program. The stadium is a controlled venue, he said. The New York State Department of Health, the Buffalo Bills, and the National Football League are all in agreement to proceed.
All 6,700 fans will be tested before entering; contact tracing will take place post-game. No tailgating or mass gathering outside the stadium will be permitted, Cuomo said, also thanking Bio-Reference Laboratories, Inc. for their help in moving the pilot program forward. Bio-Reference Laboratories will be conducting tests for two days prior to the game to ensure that fans have tested negative 72 hours prior to the game, New York State Budget Director Robert Mujica said. On game day, fans will need to show proof of their negative results, he added.
Kim and Terry Pagula, owners of the Buffalo Bills, thanked Cuomo for facilitating the plan. "The entire Bills organization misses the energy of our fans at our games," Terry said. "We want them here at the game and even though they will be there in limited numbers we will feel and definitely soak in their support at this game."
Cuomo emphasized that the game serves as a template for ways to allow businesses to reopen moving forward, using rapid testing.
"The vaccine will win the war but it won't win the war overnight and we will have to deal with that," he said.
Cuomo said there have been no decisions yet on if the plan would be used at future Bills games; the first playoff game will serve as a test. In addition, he said, the game is outdoors and indoor events are a totally different scenario. No plans are in place to test reopening indoor venues such as Broadway theaters or spaces such as Madison Square Garden.
On Wednesday, New York's coronavirus positivity rate without the microcluster zones was 8.36 percent and 8.66 including the microcluster zones. The positivity rate in the microcluster zones was 9.47 percent, Cuomo said.
New York is on the "low end" of post-holiday increases in positivity, at 8.9 percent; areas such as California saw an increase of 13.6 percent over the holiday period and Main, 16 percent, he said.
A total of 1,384 are currently hospitalized on Long Island.
New U.K. coronavirus strain not seen in New York
While Cuomo said it is believed that the new strain of coronavirus seen in the U.K. is in the United States, it has not been found in New York. The DOH and private labs have been analyzing genomic sequencing of COVID specimens since early spring; more than 4,300 have been sequenced, including more than 350 last week.
"We haven't found it in New York," Cuomo said.
In other news, the Empire State Trail opens Thursday, a 750-mile, multi-use trail from Manhattan to the Canadian border.