Tourists to New York often point to two downsides to visiting: crowds everywhere and high prices. Well, the pandemic has helped with both: It's brought thinner crowds and bargains galore. Even the subways are less congested. On recent trips this fall, all riders had seats, were spaced apart, and even held doors for one other. And it's never looked so clean.
Meanwhile, with hotel occupancy down by 65 percent, the average daily room rate has plunged by 55 percent, to $140, according to the latest figures from NYC & Company. And many restaurants are offering special deals, throwing in free desserts or other perks.
But the city, hit hard by COVID-19 in the pandemic's early days, has taken the outbreak extremely seriously. After a recent nationwide spike in positive cases, it now requires all travelers from out of state — save for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont — to have tested negative for COVID-19 before arriving, then get another test three days after arrival. You'll need to stay in quarantine for those three days before your second test. You also need to fill out a Traveler Health Form before or upon arrival. Everyone over age 2 must wear a face mask in public if social distancing cannot be maintained (the governor issued an order permitting businesses to deny entry to anyone who is not wearing a mask).
The quarantine requirement is likely to squash many Americans’ desires to visit the Big Apple in the coming weeks — but that's intentional. Officials are trying to maintain the city's relatively low rate of infection. On Nov. 13 Manhattan had a 1.8 percent positivity rate among those tested for COVID-19 (that's compared with South Dakota, for instance, which has a current positivity rate of 58.42 percent, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center).
Here's what to know about visiting the Big Apple this season.
Holiday events: Cancellations and adaptations
Some of the city's most famous holiday events are still on the calendar, albeit with social-distanced changes. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (Nov. 26 on NBC, 9 a.m. to noon), the 88th Annual Rockefeller Tree Lighting (Dec. 2 on NBC, 7 to 10 p.m.), and the New Year's Eve Times Square Ball Drop (Dec. 31) will be mostly virtual this year to prevent crowding. You can still see the tree up-close after its lighting. The Radio City Rockettes’ Christmas shows have been canceled, as have all indoor theater productions, but there are still plenty of other outdoor winter activities to enjoy.
• Central Park's Wollman Rink. The rink is offering its famous ice skating sessions ($12 for adults and $5 for adults 65 and older).
• Bryant Park's Winter Village. You can visit the park's annual Bank of America Winter Village, with its own ice skating rink (operating at reduced capacity), and its open-air market, with a reconfigured layout to make shopping at the kiosks safer through social distancing. The Village is even offering heated, domed “igloos” that you can rent for 90 minutes with small groups of friends or family. Food and drinks are served in the private, transparent tents, which are surrounded by skyscrapers and the New York Public Library (from $200). Skating is free if you bring your own skates (you can also rent them), but you need to make a reservation online (open through March 7, 2021).
There are also two lesser-known, but perhaps even more intriguing, winter events this year:
• LuminoCity Festival. It debuted just last year, but this festival at Randall's Island Park has already become one of the city's most rousing new holiday traditions. It's an immersive light show and exhibition that reimagines “the two-thousand-year history of the Chinese lantern festival in New York City through an extraordinary new light artform,” as its presenters describe it. Basically, it's a 45-minute stroll through a spectacular, open-air display of lights set up across 10 acres, with five distinct sets — Mysterious Forest, Dangerous Dunes, Forgotten Ruins, Hidden Land of Hria and Mystical Moon Land. Think of it as a mashup of Times Square, a Broadway set and Disneyland. A limited number of tickets are available for each time slot, so be sure to reserve in advance at luminocityfestival.com (starting at $38 for general admission and $32 for adults 65 and older; Nov. 27 to Jan. 10).
• The Bronx Zoo's Holiday Lights. This annual program will feature animated lights and LED displays of safari animals from around the world. This year's display will be set up in a larger area of the zoo to help encourage social distancing, and there will be roughly 50 more animal lanterns than in 2019. The experience also includes ice carvings, costumed characters, souvenirs, and treats like hot chocolate and s'mores. Tickets are required and can be reserved in advance at bronxzoo.com/holiday-lights ($34.95 for adults and $31.95 for adults 65 and older; Nov. 20 to Jan. 10).
As mentioned previously, the city's hotels are having a rough go of it, with bookings down dramatically. Many properties have temporarily halted services, and some won't reopen until the spring. But those that have remained open or have already reopened are offering fairly steep rate cuts and other perks, like parking discounts. The iconic Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan has room rates starting at $299, and reservations come with a discounted parking space at an adjacent garage. The boutique Iroquois Hotel, set to reopen on Dec. 13, is offering 20 percent off its best rates (roughly $200), along with a $25 food and beverage credit. Deals change regularly, but it's easy to check the latest offerings at New York & Company's Neighborhood Getaways guide, which launched in the wake of COVID to help the struggling tourism industry.
New York has introduced a program that allows restaurants to operate outdoors more easily, though they now must close by 10 p.m. for dine-in service (they can offer takeout after 10). Some restaurants, like Café du Soleil and Lucciola, both on the Upper West Side, are among many establishments offering pop-up plastic bubbles where patrons can dine in private. The enclosures get decontaminated after each use. Others are offering greenhouse-like enclosures with space and barriers between customers (indoor dining is still currently restricted to 25 percent occupancy). To help attract diners, restaurants are also advertising plenty of deals, such as special prix fixe menus or a free glass of wine. Gran Morsi, in Tribeca, and Perrine, on the Upper East Side, are offering free dessert. Haven Rooftop, with stunning views of Midtown, is offering a complimentary glass of wine. Again, to search for the best deals, check out nycgo.com/neighborhood-getaways.
Entertainment and activities
With Broadway, comedy clubs, and theaters shut down for the foreseeable future, New York's main cultural activities will be at museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, which are operating at reduced capacities and through timed tickets (book them in advance). You will also need a ticket for the High Line, the 1.45-mile-long elevated park on the west side of Manhattan that was created on the former New York Central Railroad spur. The tickets are free but limited as a way to control the number of visitors. But with the reduced capacity, the park — with breathtaking views of Manhattan and plenty of outdoor art — has been transformed into a serene stroll rather than the crowded schlep it often was before the pandemic.
Nearby Chelsea Market, in the heart of the Meatpacking District, has taken over the sidewalks along 15th and 16th streets and turned them into a giant open-air food court, with more than 115 socially distanced tables for 15-plus vendors serving everything from lobster rolls to hand-pulled noodles and gelato.
A similarly ambitious adaptation is happening at Pier 17 in the Seaport District. The pier's rooftop, called The Greens — which has epic views of the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights — has been home to an extremely popular concert series in the summer. Now it's staying open for winter, with 28 individual dining “cabins.” Each cabin is 12 feet by 10 feet, can seat up to 10 people, and comes with its own heaters and a virtual fireplace. The glass enclosures will also have floor-to ceiling views of the East River.
Find the Latest on New York's COVID-19 Guidelines
New York City is constantly updating its COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions as new cases emerge or the infection rate changes. The best source of quick info for potential travelers is New York & Company's Coronavirus Information and Resources page. New York state also lists current requirements on its site, and has set up a hotline for questions at 888-364-3065.
And as far as activities, don't forget just walking in general. New York may be one of the most walkable cities in the world, provided you focus on one or two neighborhoods rather than the whole lot. The city has made it even more enjoyable with its new Open Streets program, which has restricted car access to certain streets and made them for pedestrians only. (You can find the full list of streets on the city's Department of Transportation website.)
In Manhattan, you can't go wrong by getting off the subway at West 4th Street/Washington Square and ambling through the West Village. Increasingly popular, too, thanks to its iconic views of lower Manhattan, is Dumbo, across the East River from Manhattan. You can take one of the loveliest strolls of your life on a warm morning along the waterfront, passing underneath the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, through Brooklyn Bridge Park, up into the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights and its famous Promenade, then back to the heart of Dumbo. The whole loop will take an hour, and you'll see a dozen different corners and views of the city.
The subway and transportation
In April, the subway stopped its 24/7 service so the trains could be cleaned and decontaminated each night (it's closed from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.). The result, in combination with a significant dropoff in use, is a New York City subway system that hasn't been this clean in decades. There are yellow hand-sanitizer dispensers at all stations, and masks are mandatory; riders who refuse to wear one can be fined $50. Trains and buses are running on normal schedules.
Cab or ride-service (such as Uber and Lyft) drivers and their passengers age 2 and older must wear masks, according to Governor Cuomo's orders, which also recommend that operators keep windows open when possible, passengers stay in the back seat and strangers not ride together.