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New York City officially allows unvaccinated athletes to play home games

Mayor Eric Adams made the announcement Thursday morning in New York and it will be effective immediately.

The lifting of New York City's COVID-19 mandate will affect NBA players.

New York City’s mayor exempted athletes and performers — including Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving — from the city’s vaccine mandate Thursday, while keeping in place the rule for countless other workers who faced losing their jobs for refusing to get vaccinated.

The city’s sweeping vaccine mandate still applies to many, including private workers and government employees. Critics of Mayor Eric Adams’ decision, including several public employee unions whose members were fired for not getting vaccinated, blasted the mayor for seeming to lift the rule only for wealthy and famous athletes.

The city’s largest police union, which has sued the city over the mandate, said its officers “don’t deserve to be treated like second-class citizens.”

“We have been suing the city for months over its arbitrary and capricious vaccine mandate — this is exactly what we are talking about. If the mandate isn’t necessary for famous people, then it’s not necessary for the cops who are protecting our city in the middle of a crime crisis,” said said its president, Pat Lynch.

Adams officially announced the change for athletes and performers Thursday at Citi Field, where the Mets play. The exemption was effective immediately.

The Municipal Labor Committee, an umbrella group of unions that together represent about 350,000 city workers, said the city should offer a way for fired workers to get their jobs back.

“There can’t be one system for the elite and another for the essential workers of our city. We stand ready to work out the details with the mayor, as we have been throughout this process,” the group’s chair Harry Nespolli said.

Adams contended that making the athletes and performers exempt was important for the city’s economic recovery, saying “players attract people to the stadium.”

“I’m going to make some tough choices. People are not going to agree with some of them.” Adams said. “I must move this city forward.”

Adams had said he felt the vaccine rule was unfair when it came to athletes and performers because a loophole in the measure, imposed under his predecessor, allowed visiting players and performers who don’t work in New York to still play or perform even if they are unvaccinated.

The NBA and the NBPA released a joint statement following the announcement.

“The NBA and NBPA have achieved a 97% vaccination and 75% booster rate among players, required both for league staff, team staff, and referees, and will continue to be strong advocates for vaccination and boosters.  With today’s announcement, 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.  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 predecessor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, made vaccination mandatory as a workplace safety rule last year, before leaving office.

Jay Varma, a health advisor to de Blasio, said in a tweet that the mandate had legal standing because it applied to everyone.

“#VaccinesWork … unless you’re rich and powerful, in which case, #LobbyingWorks,” Varma wrote. He added: “The #KyrieCarveOut opens City up to entire scheme being voided by courts as “‘arbitrary and capricious.’”

Adams had said he felt the vaccine rule was unfair when it came to athletes and performers because a loophole in the measure, imposed under his predecessor, allowed visiting players and performers who don’t work in New York to still play or perform even if they are unvaccinated.

Irving, a vaccine holdout, had been among the most high-profile people impacted. He was able to re-join the team in January but only when they played out of town games.

Irving and Nets coach Steve Nash said they didn’t want to comment until after an official announcement. Irving scored 43 points Wednesday night on his 30th birthday in a 132-120 loss in Memphis after scoring a career-high 60 on March 15 in Orlando in the last game he was eligible to play. The Nets need him as they push for a playoff spot with nine games left in their regular season.

“It just turns the whole team around when he’s out there, so hopefully we get some good news,” Nets star Kevin Durant said.

Kyrie Irving went off against the Orlando Magic on March 15, finishing with a career-high 60 points.

Brooklyn’s next home game is Sunday, when it hosts the Charlotte Hornets (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass) in a matchup of teams vying for a spot in the Play-In Tournament. The Nets have nine games left in their season, but six of those are home dates — including their regular-season finale on April 10 vs. Indiana.

At 38-35, the Nets are one game ahead of Charlotte for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, they trail the No. 6-seeded Cavaliers by 3 1/2 games and are 2-1 against Cleveland this season. The teams will meet again April 8 in Brooklyn (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass).

This month, concerns had been raised that the rule would also impact Major League Baseball.

Yankees star Aaron Judge refused to directly answer a question about his vaccine status earlier this month, leading to speculation that another New York team would be hobbled by a player’s refusal to get inoculated.

When asked Wednesday about the rule being lifted, Judge said he was “happy Kyrie can play some home games.”

The Yankees, who open their season at home against the Boston Red Sox on April 7, said at the time that the team president was “working with city hall and all other appropriate officials on this matter.” The Yankees declined comment Wednesday.

New York Mets owner Steve Cohen gave $1.5 million to a political action committee supporting Adams during his 2021 campaign. Adams is a Mets fan.

Adams has been rolling back vaccine mandates and other coronavirus restrictions, including on Tuesday when he said masks could become optional for children under 5 starting April 4.

Mask mandates for older children have already been removed, as well as rules requiring people to show proof of vaccination to dine in a restaurant, work out at a gym, attend a show, or go to an indoor sporting event.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.