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Airlines agree to test air passengers from UK for virus; Cuomo calls for complete travel ban

Gov. Andrew Cuomo grants Santa Claus a special exemption from travel quarantine for Christmas deliveries. Cuomo held a briefing on the coronavirus on December 21, 2020.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office
Gov. Andrew Cuomo grants Santa Claus a special exemption from travel quarantine for Christmas deliveries. Cuomo held a briefing on the coronavirus on December 21, 2020.

British Airways, Delta Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have agreed to test passengers on flights from the United Kingdom to New York City for COVID-19 after a mutated and more contagious strain of the virus led to a Christmas lockdown there.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said ultimately, he’d like the U.S. to join 40 other countries that have imposed a complete travel ban on arrivals from the U.K. 

Cuomo warned that the new strain might already be in the U.S. and could cause another wave of infection. He said he believes it may already have arrived with the several thousand passengers a day who have continued to fly between Heathrow Airport and JFK and LaGuardia airports in New York City.

“I believe, intuitively, it’s already here,” Cuomo said. “Because if it’s been flying around the world, it will be here.”

Cuomo wants President Donald Trump’s administration to join the other countries and also ground planes from the U.K. to the U.S. The governor said the virus most likely came to New York last spring through infected people on flights from Europe, which were not curtailed by federal officials until later in 2020.

“We saw this movie,” Cuomo said. “Yes, I think the U.S. should halt travel.”

The governor believes that testing passengers for the coronavirus and banning anyone who tests positive will help, but it’s not the best answer.

The governor also said the first batches of vaccines continue to arrive in New York; 346,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine are on the way, and 120,000 more doses are coming from Pfizer, for a total of 630,000 shots so far.

He said 38,000 front-line health care workers have already received the first of the two vaccine doses. Vaccination of nursing home residents and staff begins later this week and is expected to take six weeks to complete.

Cuomo has appointed a special panelto review distribution of vaccines when more become available. Members include state Attorney General Tish James, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East union President George Gresham and NAACP leader Hazel Dukes.

The New York Times reported on interest groups that are lobbying to win their members a higher-priority designation on the vaccination list, including Uber and the union representing hotel workers.

Cuomo said the vaccines will be given out based on science, not political favoritism.

“There is no politics in the vaccination process,” he said.

Cuomo said he’s decided to wait to get vaccinated himself. Initially, he planned to get the shot publicly to help build public confidence. But he said he’s not in a special category and has no underlying health conditions, so he wants to wait until essential workers get their vaccines.

“I would take it today,” Cuomo said. “But I don’t want the flip side of people saying, ‘Well, that was a vaccine that could have gone to an essential worker.’ ”

Cuomo spoke on a day when the latest numbers show the statewide positivity rate for the virus was at 5.75%. There were 6,331 people in the hospital, with 1,095 in intensive care. On Sunday, 109 New Yorkers died from COVID-19.

There was one bit of good news in the governor’s briefing. Cuomo said he’s allowed a special exemption from New York’s travel quarantine requirement for Santa Claus, giving him the green light to deliver presents to households late Thursday night and early Friday morning. But Cuomo said Santa will have to wear a mask.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.