I was one of the first European tourists to visit New York City after border restrictions were relaxed: Here are 5 things that surprised me

Nov 12, 2021

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On Monday, I was one of the first people to enter the United States following the more than 600-day ban on nonessential travel.

Related: An emotional return to New York: What it was like on the first British Airways flight to the US on reopening day

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

Prior to the pandemic, I was a regular visitor to New York City, as I frequently traveled between the two TPG offices on either side of the Atlantic, so I was very excited to finally return and see what had changed.

New York was both familiar and very different from the city I remember from before the pandemic. Here’s what surprised me most.

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No COVID-19 documentation was required at the border

(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

I passed through customs at New York-JFK with the same minimal questions as to the purpose of my visit as before the pandemic: business or pleasure, length of visit and more. My negative test and vaccination certificate had been checked before I boarded my plane in the United Kingdom and I was not asked to produce this when I arrived in the United States.

In fact, I have not shown my negative test since I arrived in the country on Monday.

Vaccination certificates and ID are checked constantly

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

Unlike my test result for entry, I was surprised to be asked to show both my vaccination certificate and photo identification constantly to dine indoors as well as to enter major indoor tourist attractions, such as the Empire State Building and The Edge observation deck at Hudson Yards.

Even if all you want is to sit down inside at a Starbucks, you’ll need to show these documents. This has been consistently enforced everywhere I’ve been.

If you are not fully vaccinated or do not have your identification or vaccine details with you (or do not wish to show it), you can still purchase food and drinks for takeaway, or you can dine outdoors.

Outdoor dining has sprung up everywhere

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

It was unseasonably warm for November in New York this week so plenty of people were taking advantage of the sunshine to eat outdoors and in makeshift outdoor dining areas that have popped up on sidewalks everywhere all across the city.

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

Your chosen restaurant may well now have ample outdoor seating options. As the temperatures drop and winter rolls in it could be a very chilly experience, though many restaurants will have outdoor heating lamps to keep this option available for locals and travelers all year long.

It’s incredibly easy and convenient to find a COVID-19 test

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

British travelers have endured 18 months of expensive testing requirements for travel, last-minute on-site appointments and nervously awaiting overdue test results before being able to travel. It couldn’t be more different in New York City right now.

Mobile testing stations have popped up on almost every block.

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

Most advertise completely free tests, regardless of immigration status. Some offer antigen/lateral flow and others will offer the more expensive PCR tests, practically unheard of in the United Kingdom.

I was stunned by how easy it was to find an on-the-spot, free COVID-19 test in New York City and wish I had this convenience back home in the United Kingdom.

Related: Traveling soon? Here’s where you can quickly get a COVID-19 PCR test for travel

Mask wearing is very inconsistent

Arriving at New York-JFK on Monday, everyone in the terminal was wearing masks from airport ground staff to awaiting friends and relatives, and security and police officers. Mask wearing is strictly enforced on airplanes, at airports and on other forms of public transportation.

Once you exit the airport, though, it’s a different story.

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

Many people have been walking along the street wearing masks at all times, though this is not required by law. The Broadway show I attended had a strict mask mandate at all times (including for the full show run time), as well as the vaccine certificate plus identification check to enter — even if you just briefly step out for some fresh air at intermission as I did.

On stage, the cast performed mask-free though musicians wore masks for the entire performance, save for the trombone player and conductor.

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

At my hotel, I was told by the doormen that staff and guests were not required to wear masks inside the property if they were fully vaccinated and did not wish to do so.

And at major tourist attractions, masks were “encouraged” indoors, but not required outdoors.

Related: You should still wear a mask even if fully vaccinated, health professionals say

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

Mask wearing on the subway is required but not strictly enforced. Most subway riders wore masks properly, certainly more than you’d see in London right now.

Most staff and customers will also mask in supermarkets, drug stores and shopping centers.

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

Don’t head out for the day without a mask handy, though you won’t have to wear it all day as you sightsee around the city if you don’t want to.

Photo by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy

If visiting a popular fitness center or gym is part of your travel routine, remember you will need to show your ID and proof of vaccination but, perhaps surprisingly, mask-wearing is not common in the studio.

Bottom line

The weather is dropping down into single digits next week, which is far more normal for November, but it’s still a great time to visit New York City.

The COVID-19 situation felt very safe. I was honestly surprised at how many people were still wearing masks — even walking along the street — in comparison to the United Kingdom where this has significantly reduced since so-called Freedom Day.

Virtually everything was open again, with some bars explaining to me that there are “only … a few beers on tap right now as we are still in our reopening process.”

My hotel told me that, following their extensive renovation just before the pandemic, many of the beds have never been slept in. It’s likely you’ll be able to find a good deal in a city that relies heavily on foreign tourists to fill those hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms as New York City heads into a hopefully prosperous festive holiday season.

The ice skating rink, for example, is already operating at Rockefeller Center Plaza.

There are plenty of locals around but far fewer foreign tourists, which is natural given restrictions have only just been relaxed. It was wonderful to be back in a city that holds such a special place in my heart, and I look forward to many more visits next year.

Featured image by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy.

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