A limited number of fans will be allowed to attend sports and entertainment events at venues with 10,000 or more seats in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday.
This means that sports franchises like the Nets, Knicks, Rangers, Sabres and Islanders may be able to have attendees in the stands as soon as Feb. 23, Cuomo said, provided that seating is limited to 10 percent of the venue’s capacity.
Cuomo added that Barclays Center had already been approved for hosting fans on Feb. 23 for the Nets’ game against the Sacramento Kings.
All attendees will have to show proof of a negative P.C.R. test taken within 72 hours of the event, and the state’s Department of Health will have to approve each venue. Fans will also be required to remain socially distanced and wear face coverings at games.
Cuomo said in a news conference Wednesday that his goal was to “get this economy open intelligently and in a balanced way” while also trying to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Ticket sales are another source of revenue for sports franchises, many of which have been dealt financial blows by the pandemic much like other industries. However, allowing fans to attend games in person also raises the risk of coronavirus transmissions as much of the country is still seeing high case numbers.
Cuomo cited a recent Buffalo Bills playoff game, which had roughly 6,700 attendees at the open-air Bills Stadium, as a model for other venues.
“The testing is the key,” Cuomo said.
Testing is helpful, but by no means certain, said Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist from George Mason University.
“A test 72 hours prior to a game will help identify some cases, but that’s also three days in which an individual can become infectious,” Dr. Popescu wrote in an email.
Cuomo said the new initiative would extend past sports and include concerts.
“This is a difficult time on many, many levels,” Cuomo said. “Personally, it’s very difficult. Emotionally it’s difficult. Economically it’s difficult. But we are finding the balance and we are going to be the better for it.”
Several states have allowed sports fans inside venues during the pandemic, especially at outdoor stadiums for baseball and football. The Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday had about 25,000 attendees, and Major League Baseball allowed fans into the later playoff rounds in Arlington, Texas, last season.
However, sports that take place outdoors have had far more fans than those indoors, in large part because public health officials have said it is easier to spread the virus indoors.
In the N.B.A., 11 of 30 teams are allowing a limited number of fans to observe games, a shift from last year when the league finished its season over the summer without fans at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla. The rules for attendance have varied by state. The New Orleans Pelicans are allowing fans to attend at 4 percent capacity, while the Houston Rockets are at 25 percent.
The Nets said on Wednesday that people who bought tickets would be mailed P.C.R. tests, which could then be shipped for overnight results, while Barclays Center employees are already tested on site.
“We’re very confident in our ability to do this safely. It’s been at the forefront of our concerns all along,” John Abbamondi, the chief executive of BSE Global, the parent company of the Nets and Barclays Center, said in an interview. “We have a very massive facility here and we’re going to be bringing a really small percentage of our capacity. We’re going to be testing not only every patron, but here at the Nets, we’re going to be testing every employee before every event.”
He added, “There’s nothing in life without risks, but when you look at our building at 10 percent capacity with everybody having come in having been tested, compared to going to a restaurant or something like that, I think it’s at least as safe, if not safer, than that.”
The Knicks and Rangers, which are both owned by James L. Dolan, said they intended to host about 2,000 fans at every game at Madison Square Garden starting with the Feb. 23 Knicks game against the Golden State Warriors and the Rangers’ game against the Boston Bruins three days later. It was not immediately clear whether the arena had received approval from the state to do so.
“We know our fans are anxious to return and we can’t wait to see them at The Garden once again,” the teams said in a statement.
Other New York teams were also quick to respond positively to Cuomo’s announcement.
“It’s an encouraging first step toward us potentially welcoming fans back to Citi Field,” the Mets said in a statement. “We look forward to working with government officials to ensure that the return to the ballpark is safe and convenient for our fans.”
The Yankees said they would “work diligently and in lock step with the governor” as the baseball season approached.
The news was also welcomed by Major League Soccer’s commissioner, Don Garber, whose league was battered financially by the absence of fans in many of its cities during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. M.L.S. will kick off its new campaign on April 17.
“I’m encouraged by Governor Cuomo’s announcement and his optimism,” Garber said, adding that he was hopeful other states, including New Jersey, would continue to ease restrictions on large gatherings like sporting events.
M.L.S. has two teams in the New York area — New York City F.C., which plays at Yankee Stadium, and the Red Bulls, whose home field is in Harrison, N.J.
The governor’s announcement comes not long after he decided that indoor dining could resume this Friday in New York City restaurants, at 25 percent capacity, and as New York recovers from a period of heightened coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.
Reports of new coronavirus cases in New York State have declined by 33 percent, and cases in the city are down by around 20 percent, in the past two weeks. But the state still had the fifth highest rate of cases per capita in the United States over the last week.
Restaurant workers can be vaccinated at some state-operated sites in New York, but it is unclear how many venue workers, such as ushers and other stadium staff members, would be eligible for the vaccine this month — or whether they’d be moved up in line to help mitigate their risk at games.
While the new rule may allow sporting events to take place, it is not expected to bring back much live music anytime soon.
The governor’s capacity limit is far too low for a major concert to make money, concert promoters said.
“At 10 percent, everyone (artists, promoters) will lose money,” John Scher, a New York-area promoter, wrote in an email.
The concert business, which relies on national tours that are set months in advance, isn’t ready for a quick return. Even the most optimistic touring plans are eyeing the summer or the fall for the first large-scale concerts, and most big spring festivals — like Coachella in Southern California and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — have already been postponed.
Public health experts said the quality of ventilation is crucial when considering indoor gatherings because the virus is known to spread more easily indoors. Cuomo did not offer details about ventilation requirements, but a news release from his office later said that sites had to “meet enhanced air filtration, ventilation and purification standards” in order to reopen.
Sports fans should also not let their masks slip. Wearing tightly fitted masks, and layering a cloth mask atop a surgical mask, can reduce the risk of transmission by up to 96.5 percent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Wednesday.
The wisdom of holding large gatherings inside is debatable. Some indoor events last year became notorious as possible superspreader events, like an indoor campaign rally in July for former President Donald J. Trump that preceded a surge in cases in Tulsa, Okla.
Of course, many of the people at that rally did not take precautions like those mandated in New York. But going to the game still means accepting some risk, especially as new variants of the virus spread, Dr. Popescu said.
“I appreciate that there’s attention to masking, distancing, and ventilation, as risk reduction is additive,” Dr. Popescu said. “But over all, bringing thousands of people indoors for an event that elicits screaming and socializing is not ideal right now.”
Reporting was contributed by Mitch Smith, Albert Sun, John Keefe, James Wagner and Andrew Das.