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New York City alters vaccine mandate, clearing way for Kyrie Irving to play at home

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving could soon be eligible to play at Barclays Center for the first time this season after anticipated changes to New York City's private sector vaccine mandate. (Mark Brown/Getty Images)
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New York Mayor Eric Adams loosened the city’s coronavirus health guidelines for unvaccinated performers and professional athletes Thursday, exempting them from a local private sector vaccine mandate that didn’t allow them to perform in New York stadiums previously.

“Being healthy is not just about being physically healthy, but being economically healthy,” Adams said Thursday during a news conference at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. “This is about putting New York City-based performers on a level field.”

Adams said the decision was not driven by external pressure but because of the desire to improve New York’s economy. The exemption will not apply to other private workers, with Adams adding that those who are specifically exempt will have the new designation because of their economic impact on the city.

“I want to be clear: Expanding this exemption, which only applies to a small number of people, is crucial,” Adams said.

The new rules are expected to restore full eligibility for unvaccinated Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving and allow any unvaccinated members of the New York Yankees and Mets to appear in home games when Major League Baseball opens its season April 7. Politico first reported Adams’s plan Wednesday.

The city’s private sector mandate, which was put into place in December, required employees “who perform in-person work or interact with the public” to show proof of vaccination.

Adams again encouraged Irving and all other New York athletes to get vaccinated and boosted, saying his feelings had not changed on that subject despite the exemption. Adams said he didn’t want to make the decision haphazardly, instead opting to follow the science to do what’s right.

Mets President Sandy Alderson said at the news conference Thursday that “a minority” of the team is unvaccinated, while New York Yankees President Randy Levine said “very few” Yankees players are unvaccinated. Levine declined to give a specific number of players but thanked Adams for his move.

“On behalf of the New York Yankees, I want to thank you, Mayor Adams, for making this courageous decision,” Levine said.

The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association issued a joint statement following the announcement, welcoming the change.

“We support the Mayor’s determination that the old rules treating hometown and visiting players differently no longer made sense, particularly because unvaccinated NBA players will continue to test daily,” the statement read. “We applaud the Mayor for listening to the concerns of our New York teams, players, fans and communities and for leveling the playing field for home teams and their opponents.”

Adams has gradually rolled back the city’s regulations as coronavirus cases have dropped significantly since the peak of the omicron wave in December and January. Earlier this month, he lifted a vaccine mandate for citizens attending entertainment venues, eating indoors at restaurants and using fitness centers. Adams also lifted a mask mandate for public schools starting March 7 and announced plans to institute a similar policy for day-care centers beginning April 4.

Irving, who has been unable to play games at Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden, could make his first home appearance as soon as Sunday against the Charlotte Hornets. The seven-time all-star has been limited to 20 appearances this season but remains a key piece of the Nets’ playoff hopes. The 30-year-old guard is averaging 28.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists, and he scored a career-high 60 points in a win over the Orlando Magic last week.

In recent months, prominent members of the NBA community, including Commissioner Adam Silver, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James and Nets forward Kevin Durant, have criticized New York City regulations that sidelined Irving but allowed unvaccinated members of visiting teams to play in the city.

Silver publicly lobbied on Irving’s behalf for the first time in February, asserting during an ESPN interview that New York City’s vaccine mandate “doesn’t make sense” because it holds New York-based players to a different standard than visiting players. At his All-Star Weekend address in Cleveland, Silver added that he expected New York City’s restrictions to be lifted if “local rates of infection and testing … continue to come down.”

The pushback to New York’s regulations intensified when Irving was allowed to attend Nets games at Barclays Center as a fan under the revised guidelines but was still barred from playing. The NBA later fined the Nets $50,000 for allowing Irving to enter the locker room following a March 13 home win over the New York Knicks.

“It literally makes ABSOLUTELY ZERO SENSE!!!” James wrote on Twitter. “They say if common sense was common then we’d all have it. Ain’t that the truth. #FreeKyrie.”

Durant said the rules were “ridiculous” March 13, calling out Adams while asserting that “someone is trying to make a statement or point to flex their authority.” In a follow-up statement, Durant clarified that he “appreciate[s] the task the Mayor has in front of him with all the city has been through,” adding that his “frustration with the situation doesn’t change the fact that I will always be committed to helping the communities and cities I live in.”

Despite the criticism sparked by Irving’s ordeal, Adams said as recently as last week that his focus was on New York’s “9 million people” rather than “one person.” He also encouraged Irving to get vaccinated.

In New York City, 86 percent of the citywide population has received at least one vaccine dose and 78 percent is fully vaccinated. The citywide case count has dropped from a seven-day average of more than 44,000 on Jan. 5 to 806 on March 20.

The Nets (38-35) were pegged as preseason title favorites, but they entered Friday as the East’s No. 8 seed. Barring a late-season rise in the standings, Brooklyn will need to work its way into the postseason through the play-in tournament, which begins April 12.