COVID-19

New York Pilots COVID Passport of Sorts to Fast-Track Reopening: Here's How It Works

A new pilot program in New York hopes to use a sort of COVID "passport" to fast-track the reopening of stadiums, theaters and businesses in accordance with state health guidelines

NBC Universal, Inc.

What to Know

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo is testing a sort of COVID passport at Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center; the secure technology confirms an individual's vaccination or recent negative COVID-19 test
  • If successful, the Excelsior Pass pilot program could lead to faster reopenings of stadiums, theaters and businesses in accordance with state health guidelines
  • Like a mobile airline boarding pass, people can print them out or store it in their phone's Wallet apps; each pass has a secure QR code that venues scan using a companion app to confirm health status

One week after Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center welcomed some fans back for the first time in a year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is upping the game.

The governor announced a pilot program Tuesday to test the Excelsior Pass during events at the two arenas. Think of the pass like a "COVID passport" of sorts, one that relies on technology to confirm a person's vaccination or recent negative virus test through a confidential data transfer.

Similar to a mobile airline boarding pass, people can print out their Excelsior Pass or store it on their phones using the Excelsior Pass's "Wallet App." Each pass will have a secure QR code, which venues scan using a companion app to confirm someone's COVID health status. The results of the pilot are being used to enhance the quality of the app prior to submission to Apple and Google.

Declaring New York state's demonstration with the Buffalo Bills an "unparalleled success," Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday he will extend the testing- based program to any large stadium or arena later this month. That means fans who provide a negative PCR test within 72 hours of an event will be able to attend music shows and performances as well as baseball, soccer, football and basketball games. Arenas can open to the public on Feb. 23.

Cuomo made COVID testing a requirement for fans to attend events at large venues when he approved those for limited reopening last month, and he says the new technology, developed in partnership with IBM, will fast-track the reopening of theaters, stadiums and other businesses at a more accelerated pace.

The governor says the Excelsior Pass worked well when the state tried it out during the initial pilot phase during the Nets game at Barclays this past Saturday. It will be tested for a second time during the Rangers game at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night. If the results are good, the application may widen.

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Other COVID rules and restrictions apply to the reopening of large venues aside from the testing component. Certain rules and restrictions apply to start, Cuomo said. Only arenas with more than 10,000-person total capacity can reopen at this point; a strict 10 percent capacity limit applies. Venues must submit plans to the State Department of Health for approval. Core mitigation efforts like masks, assigned seating for social distancing and temperature checks are mandatory.

The Nets and Knicks will host fans for the first time in about a year, and families are about to be able to visit nursing homes again. John Chandler reports.

"We're doing everything we can to vaccinate as many New Yorkers as possible, as quickly as possible, while keeping the infection rate down and reenergizing our economy in a safe, smart way," Cuomo said in a statement Tuesday. 

"As we begin reopening the valves on different sectors of our economy, we are putting guidelines in place to ensure individuals attending events involving larger gatherings have tested negative for COVID or have been vaccinated to avoid an outbreak of the virus," the governor added. "The Excelsior Pass will play a critical role in getting information to venues and sites in a secure and streamlined way, allowing us to fast-track the reopening of these businesses and getting us one step closer to reaching a new normal."

The in-game experience is quite different from pre-pandemic times. All concession stands are closed. Food and drinks are brought directly to fans in specialized seating. In Brooklyn, Barclays turned some of its seating areas into mini-suites. There are seating bowls with bar stools and a couch and plexiglass walls on either side to essentially create a little bubble.

Going to a game isn't cheap, either. The bare minimum cost to attend Nets games right now is $200, just for the costs of the tests. And that's completely separate from the cost of the ticket. Still, it's a critical series of first steps.

"We are pleased to partner with the state on this important pilot, which we hope will be another step forward in helping New York City to reopen," James Dolan, executive chairman of MSG Sports and executive chairman and CEO of MSG Entertainment, said in a statement.

According to the state, robust privacy protections are woven throughout the digital health pass solution, giving people a trusted way to maintain control of their personal information using an encrypted digital phone wallet or printed credential. People can decide for themselves if they want to use it -- it's a voluntary program -- and if they do, they can elect which passes to use for which purposes without sharing their underlying personal data. User data is kept confidential. The QR code only informs the venue if a pass is valid or invalid.

As COVID restrictions continue to be relaxed in New York City, winter weather across the country hampered efforts to open vaccination sites. Of those that have stayed open, many continue to face supply problems. NBC New York's Andrew Siff reports.

If the pilot works, fans might soon be able to use the Excelsior Pass to attend music shows and performances as well as baseball, soccer and football games at those high-capacity venues, which are critical to ensure social distancing. That's why Broadway is off the table for now.

New Mets' majority owner Steve Cohen hopes to have Citi Field, which is currently being used as a city-run mass vaccination site, on board next. He said at the time of Cuomo's announcement he'd like to host fans for the 2021 season home opener against Miami on April 8, albeit it at significantly limited capacity.

The Yankees have also welcomed Cuomo's decision but have yet to elaborate on any potential plans to host fans when their season begins. That stadium is also being used as a mass vaccination site, serving Bronx residents only at this point.

Large New Jersey venues welcomed back fans starting this week as well. Strict COVID rules similarly apply in the Garden State, though Gov. Phil Murphy has not made proof of testing or vaccination a requirement.

Erica Byfield reports from New Jersey where Gov. Murphy has upped capacity at large venues and religious institutions

Cuomo has said for months that testing is the key to reopening entertainment and sports venues, offices and more before vaccination reaches critical mass. He says New York can't stay shut down for the many more months it could take to hit that number. The low threshold for herd immunity, he says, is 75 percent.

As of Tuesday, more than 3 million people in New York state have had at least one dose, about 15.2 percent of the population. Nearly 1.7 million people have been fully vaccinated. That's slightly more than 8 percent of the state's population.

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