Everything you need to know about visiting New York City this summer

May 14, 2021

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This time last year, New Yorkers like myself were hunkered down at home. Outside, the familiar sounds of city life had been replaced by an eerie quiet.

Now, there’s a new energy in New York City — and it feels electric.

In a lot of ways, it’s beginning to feel like a normal, pre-pandemic spring in the city (drinks in the park, happy hours with coworkers and friends, feeling annoyed when you just miss your train). But these experiences are infused with something else entirely: gratitude.

Several (vaccinated) coworkers from TPG and Lonely Planet gathered in Central Park earlier this week for pizza and drinks. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed human interaction, raucous laughter or even small talk about pets and children.

A handful of us reconvened in the East Village afterward and caught up on life over margaritas and mozzarella sticks. This sounds like a pretty basic day, but for someone who has spent more than a year holed up inside a Brooklyn apartment, it was great to do something that felt, well, normal.

New York City is making its comeback, and even though it’s different, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The city quickly became an epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis during the early days of the pandemic. But thanks to an aggressive vaccination campaign, nearly 40% of New Yorkers are now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio cited these vaccination rates when announcing plans to reopen the city.

New York even recently rolled out the Excelsior Pass, a mobile app that verifies COVID-19 test results and proof of vaccination.

If you’re a New Yorker, you can use the Excelsior Pass if you’ve been fully vaccinated in New York state and it’s been 14 days or longer since your final shot; you had a negative PCR test administered in New York within three days; or you took a negative antigen test in New York in the last six hours

Now, it appears the City That Never Sleeps has started to rebound. Last month, de Blasio said New York City plans to “fully reopen” on July 1, saying that people would “flock” back to the city.

If you’re planning to visit New York City now, keep in mind that some neighborhoods might be more “open” than others. Midtown, which was once flooded with tourists in town for Broadway shows, is still quieter than, say, Astoria in Queens or the bar-heavy Lower East Side.

Still, de Blasio promises that this “is going to be the summer of New York City.”

Here’s what you need to know if you have plans to visit New York City this summer.

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WeWork coworking space in Manhattan, NY
(Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

Currently, New York State is under Phase 4 of reopening.

That means indoor arenas are allowed to operate at 30% capacity, starting May 19, though fans must wear masks and test negative for coronavirus within 72 hours of the event. Outdoor arenas and performing arts venues can operate at 33% capacity and indoor dining has increased to 75% capacity in New York City.

On the same day, New York State will lift most capacity restrictions on businesses, venues and gatherings. And, according to de Blasio, there will be no restrictions on restaurants, shops, businesses or theaters when the city is expected to fully reopen in July.

Restaurants and bars

Outdoor dining
(Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

New York City has one of the most diverse food scenes in the world. And after the city embraced outdoor dining, New Yorkers flocked back to brunch and happy hour, though with more space between tables and a lot more hand sanitizer.

But soon, there will be no curfew or limits on dining in the city. The midnight curfew on outdoor dining will end on May 17 and will end for outdoor dining on May 31. Indoor dining expanded to 75% capacity on May 7.

Outdoor dining has been one of my favorite pandemic-era changes. Some restaurants have gone all out to make their outdoor dining areas comfortable and fun (think: space heaters, igloos and yurts). And thanks to the success of outdoor dining in New York City, many of these changes will be permanent. Through the Open Restaurants program, more than 10,000 restaurants are now allowed to offer outdoor dining, according to The New York Times. Many streets have been closed to vehicular traffic, at least on certain days, to facilitate this change.

Basically, it’s never been easier to dine outside in New York City, regardless of the time of year.

I know I’ve never spent more time outdoors in New York City, and I’ve dined on more rooftops than I can count just in 2021.

And because travel to New York City is still down, it’s been a bit easier scoring tables at some of the most popular restaurants in the city. For instance, I was never able to get a reservation at the Italian restaurant Carbone before the pandemic, but I managed to snag a same-day table for two late last year.

But travelers should also brace for the opposite to be true. Some restaurants, like several I visited this spring in the East Village, aren’t taking reservations and are walk-up only. Other neighborhood haunts have waitlists spanning more than a week. That means you should confirm your dinner plans around the same time you’re planning your trip.

Tourist attractions

(Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage)

The tourist attractions synonymous with New York City are largely open — with one notable exception, which I’ll detail more below. The costumed characters are back in Times Square, and Ellis Island tours have resumed. The Statue of Liberty Museum and the grounds of Liberty Island are welcoming tourists (with a ticket), but the crown and pedestal interior areas are still closed.

Circle Line cruises are whisking visitors around the Hudson and East River, and the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, One World Observatory and Edge at Hudson Yards have once again opened their observation decks.

Of course, there have been some changes. The Empire State Building tours are by appointment only and out-of-town visitors (travelers coming from a state not bordered by New York) are required to fill out a health form. Indoor and outdoor museums, historical and cultural sites, aquariums have been at 50% capacity since April 26.

That means you’ll need to buy a timed entry ticket to visit some of your favorite New York City museums and even the famous botanical gardens.

Sports events

Beginning May 19, large-scale indoor event venues will operate at 30% capacity while large-scale outdoor event venues will operate at 33%.

Restarting large-scale events will be pivotal to reopening New York. I got to see how New York State plans to handle these events during an early March game between the New York Knicks and the Detroit Pistons at Madison Square Garden. There was something extremely emotional about sitting inside an arena that’s a significant part of New York’s culture, supporting a team so important to the city.

While I’m not a sports fan, I was impressed with the placards reminding people to stay at least 6 feet apart. (Even the announcer helped fans stay safe with fun basketball facts: “Did you know the average wingspan of a basketball player is 6 feet?”) Ushers were also quick to remind fans to cover their mouths when not eating or drinking.

Getting around

Photographer: Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg via Getty Images

New York City’s subway will resume full 24-hour service starting on May 17.

Some things haven’t changed, like the buskers performing in subway cars and stations, or frequent delays. Still, trains are starting to fill up again and while you might not be in a full car, you’ll likely be around more people than usual. Daily subway ridership has been over 1 million since May 2, with five of those days over 2 million, according to MTA data.

If you want to avoid taking the subway, rideshare apps like Uber, Lyft and Via are options — but you’ll likely pay a hefty price and wait longer than normal. That’s because there’s a shortage of drivers, fueled in part by pandemic fears, pay and violence against drivers, according to Business Insider.

Broadway and other performances

(Photo by alanamckinney7/Twenty20)

Broadway is coming back — but not until the fall. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on May 5 announced that Broadway theaters could start selling tickets for full-capacity shows in New York City with performances starting Sept. 14.

Broadway has been dark for more than a year, and it will take time for the many moving parts of the performances to be put back together. Actors and musicians need time to be reassembled and trained. Producers need time to advertise and market major shows. COVID-19 safety protocols and procedures will also need to be figured out.

Even though you can’t see a show just yet, you can still book tickets for later down the road. If you want to see a show this fall, you can go to Broadway.org to find tickets.

But you have other options for entertainment, too. The Gotham Comedy Club, for instance, is back open with new pandemic-era rules such as temperature checks and masks. Or, if you’re a movie buff, you could spend the day at the movie theater.

Bottom line

The city says it’s ready to reopen in full, based on vaccination rates and low positive COVID-19 case counts. While it’s still unclear if New York will actually reopen this summer, given the mayor and governor’s not-so-private spats, it’s welcome news for travelers missing the Big Apple — even with Broadway being closed until the fall.

But, to me, New York already feels open. It feels alive. People are sitting outside on their stoops in Bed Stuy, waving to neighbors. Tourists navigating the subway map still look confused. Bodega cats are still sitting on top of the bread. There have been far too many debates about whether New York is “back” or “over,” but I’d say New York never went away. It just evolved — and change is a good thing.

Featured photo by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

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