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For the 88th year, the Rockefeller Center Tree has returned for the holidays. Normally, the public is able to view the tree being lit for the first time, but that won’t be the case this year.

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The holidays have come to New York City amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While some traditions, including the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes, have been canceled, others, like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, Bryant Park Winter Village and Saks Fifth Avenue’s window displays are still happening – just very differently this year.  

“Many of the things that make the holidays so special also carry the most risk,” said New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi. “I understand that after all we’ve been through, there is a need to find comfort through celebrating with family and community. But I want to be clear: The holidays this year cannot look like years past.”

Though the city’s department of health has advised people not to travel, organizers of holiday destinations say they have taken extensive steps to ensure the health and safety of those visitors who do decide to come.

New travel guidance: CDC says Americans should avoid travel during winter holiday season, get COVID-19 tests if they do

Costumers look through the window of a seasonal store in Bryant Park in New York City ahead of Black Friday on Nov. 26, 2020. (Photo: KENA BETANCUR, AFP via Getty Images)

Outdoor lights at New York Botanical Garden

The New York Botanical Garden closed its popular holiday train show to all but its members this year, in an effort to reduce crowding. Instead, it’s offering a new outdoor light experience called Glow.

“The capacity for the train show is severely limited, but we still wanted to offer something to the public that has supported us so much, especially during this time,” said Vice President for Garden Experience Lauren Turchio.

Glow, which features thousands of LED lights, takes place outdoors in a portion of the Botanical Garden’s 250 acres. Turchio said valuable lessons in crowd control and COVID-19 safety were learned when the Botanical Garden reopened in July, lessons it’s applying to the holidays.

“We had a steady, but limited opening, for members, our community partners and health care heroes in the first week, and that helped us try out all the safety protocols,” Turchio said. “Everyone adapted very well. Since our July opening, we have had 230,000 ticketed guests.” 

The same protocols are in place for Glow: advance ticketed reservations, reduced capacity and large outdoor areas for visitors to stroll.

Bryant Park requires reservations

Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park, which has been open since late October, reduced the number of vendors at its holiday market from 170 to about 60 to create more room in the park. Timed reservations are also required for skating. With many people opting to stay home, especially out-of-town tourists, the venue is expecting fewer travelers and more local visitors.

“We’ve had several people tell us that in a normal year, they might wait until after the holidays to visit Bryant Park, but without those crowds, New Yorkers are really enjoying the holiday season at Bank of America Winter Village for themselves this year,” said Irene Vagianos, vice president of brand partnerships and events at Bryant Park.

Grand Central Terminal fair is virtual

At nearby Grand Central Terminal, the popular Holiday Fair, which always drew crowds, went all virtual this year, with 60 artisans and craftspeople selling their work online.  

“The Grand Central Holiday Fair normally brings a ton of energy and people and good cheer to a tightly packed indoor area, but this year, with concerns about social distancing, we opted to bring some of that energy online, ” said MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan. “We are optimistic about the online version of the fair.”  

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Rockefeller tree limits visitors; fewer tourists expected in NYC

According to Alyssa Schmid of NYC & Company, the convention and visitors bureau in New York City, about 7 million people traditionally visit New York City during a typical holiday season, from Thanksgiving to Christmas. About 750,000 people, Schmid added, visit the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree per day.

Far fewer will get up close and personal this year; the area directly around the tree is closed, and visitors in groups of no more than four will be allowed 5 minutes in COVID-safe pods at socially distanced spots to snap their photos. Access will be granted via an app and a virtual queue.

With travel restrictions in place, especially from other states, the tourism group estimates that just 22.9 million people will visit the entire city in the last nine months of 2020.

For those who do come, Schmid said businesses and venues are taking part in the Stay Well NYC Pledge, which includes hand-washing and sanitizing, requiring face coverings, social distancing and using contactless payment whenever possible.

“Additionally, many of the activities have their own protocols in place this year, including limited and timed ticketing,” Schmid said. A list of the businesses participating is available at NYCgo.com.

Macy’s goes ‘touchless’

Macy’s is using “touchless technology” and holiday-themed 6-foot distance markers so visitors can safely interact with their iconic holiday window displays, which this season are designed as a thank you to those New Yorkers who have been on the front lines of the pandemic.

“The safety of our colleagues and customers is our top priority,” said Bridget Betances, the national media relations manager at Macy’s. “In order to avoid gathering crowds, we encourage customers to view the windows at their leisure and practice proper social distancing.” 

Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows and light show is on

Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows and light show, called “This is How We Celebrate,” are open, as well, but the store is also live-streaming the nightly show to encourage people to watch from home instead of crowding the sidewalk.

Bronx Zoo limits capacity

At the Bronx Zoo, capacity is also limited for its Holiday Lights show, which began Nov. 20. Organizers have expanded the annual event to allow for more social distancing, among other health and safety precautions. 

“The response from the public has been positive,” said a Bronx Zoo spokesperson. “It is clear that people are looking to get out and experience the holidays with some sense of normalcy.”

Personal safety is key

Leaving home to come to the city for a holiday excursion is a personal decision that should not be taken lightly. Chokshi emphasized the importance of the city’s health and safety protocols, including discouraging unnecessary travel. 

“We know that an informed and watchful city is one of our best defenses against COVID-19. Mistletoe may be off limits this year, but holiday cheer is not,” Chokshi said. “Mask up, maintain distance, wash your hands, stay home if you’re ill and get tested. Please, if you don’t absolutely have to, don’t travel. This will help protect not just your loved ones, but also other New Yorkers.” 

Even with all the pandemic restrictions, capacity limits and more, the Botanical Garden’s Turchio found a silver lining. 

The New York Botanical Garden, she said, had been contemplating a nighttime light experience for several years. The pandemic accelerated those plans.

“A lot of our garden peers have had successful ones, and this year, given the conditions we thought it was the perfect time to launch it,” she said.

“We are happy to be able to offer something to the public that has supported us so much especially during this time.”

Features editor for lohud.com and poughkeepsiejournal.com Karen Croke contributed to this story. 

Heather Clark covers business openings and closings throughout Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. Contact Clark via email, hclark@lohud.com. 

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