Keep your vaccination certificate handy: What it’s like visiting New York City right now
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On Monday, I was one of the first British travellers to enter the United States following the more than 600 day ban on nonessential travel.
Prior to the pandemic, I was a regular visitor to New York City, as I frequently travelled between the two TPG offices on either side of the Atlantic, so I was very excited to finally return and see what had changed.
If you are visiting the Big Apple after the big reopening this week, here is what you need to know.
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No covid-19 documentation was required at the border
I passed through customs at New York’s JFK Airport 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.
You will also need to sign a Combined Passenger Disclosure and Attestation to the United States of America confirming you meet the COVID-19 entry requirements to the United States. I uploaded my documents through the VeriFLY app and this attestation was neatly integrated into the app so all I needed to do was read through and click to agree to some questions – there was no printing of documents or hand-written signatures required.
In fact, I have not shown my negative test since I arrived in the country on Monday.
Be ready to show your vaccination certificate and ID constantly
Unlike my test result for entry, you must show both your vaccination certificate and photo identification constantly to dine indoors as well as enter major indoor tourist attractions – like the Empire State Building and The Edge observation deck at Hudson Yards.
Even a cup of coffee at Starbucks will require these documents to be produced if you want to sit down inside to eat or drink. 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 is everywhere
It is unseasonably warm for November in New York this week so plenty of people are taking advantage of the sunshine to eat outdoors and in makeshift outdoor dining areas that have popped up on sidewalks all across the city.
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 travellers all year long.
It’s very easy to find a COVID-19 test
British travellers will recall 18 months of expensive testing requirements for travel, last-minute onsite 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.
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.
Remember that while you may enjoy the comfort of testing negative before boarding your flight back to the United Kingdom, a predeparture test is no longer required to return home if you are fully vaccinated, and you can’t use one of these free tests for your Day 2 test as it is not issued by an approved U.K. government provider.
Mask wearing is inconsistent
Arriving at New York’s JFK Airport on Monday, everyone in the terminal was wearing masks from airport ground staff through to awaiting friends and relatives and security and police. Mask wearing is strictly enforced on airplanes, at airports and on other forms of public transportation.
Once you exit the airport it is a different story.
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!
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.
At major tourist attractions masks were “encouraged” indoors, but not required outdoors.
Mask wearing on the subway, like the London Underground 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 centres.
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.
If visiting a popular fitness centre 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.
There are Americans, but not many foreign tourists
New York had the same level of energy and excitement that I remember from before the pandemic, though it’s not as crowded. Most accents I heard on the streets and in and around attractions were American. British travellers and other Europeans will return, but they were few and far between on reopening week.
I enjoyed fewer queues for attractions than in 2019 and it felt like there were fewer people on the subway in Manhattan, even at peak periods. The traffic on the roads from the city into the airport was just as heavy and slow as I remember, but I was so happy to be back that it didn’t bother me.
Most Broadway theatres were either fully reopened, or had announced a reopening date for this month. Just as before the pandemic, construction is everywhere in the city right now.
Times Square had plenty of people around though it wasn’t the sea of humanity I’ve experienced before.
It won’t stay this warm and sunny for long — 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 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 ‘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 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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