By Jacob Lev and Kelly McCleary, CNN
Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving made his first appearance of the season on the team’s home court Sunday after being sidelined by a Covid-19 vaccine mandate.
Irving racked up 16 points and 11 assists in the Nets’ 119-110 loss to the Charlotte Hornets at the Barclays Center.
His return to the hardwood in Brooklyn came after New York Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday he would allow New York-based professional athletes and performers to be exempt from the city’s vaccine mandate for workers.
The policy kept Irving, a seven-time All-Star guard who chose not to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, from playing in 35 home games the Nets have played since the NBA season began in October. He has been playing with the team on the road.
“I don’t take it for granted what happened tonight. It was historic and I’m grateful that I got a chance to be out there with my brothers and just leave it all out there,” Irving said after the game.
Irving has been able to attend games at the Barclays Center as a spectator, but his presence in the home locker room at a game earlier this month saw the Nets hit with a $50,000 fine for “violating local New York City law and league health and safety protocols.”
The Nets have seven remaining games in the NBA regular season, five of which will be played at the Barclays Center. The team’s next home game is Tuesday against the Detroit Pistons.
Adams said he expanded the vaccine exemption in part because the city’s economy — including vendors and businesses that surround the city’s venues — thrives best when all its stars attract people to those places. The city’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry, he said, was still suffering from losses caused by the pandemic.
He also said he was doing it out of fairness — to put New York City-based performers “on a level playing field” with visiting performers, who were already exempt from the mandate, and because the city is now a “low-risk (Covid-19) environment.”
“We’re not doing it because there are pressures to do it. We’re doing it because the city has to function,” Adams said Thursday.
The expansion of vaccine exemptions means all New York Yankees and Mets players can participate in their home openers next month regardless of their Covid-19 vaccination status.
Details about how many Yankees and Mets have not received a Covid-19 vaccine weren’t immediately available.
At Thursday’s news conference, Yankees president Randy Levine said a “few” of his team’s players were unvaccinated.
“You’re going to have to live with ‘few,’ and I can’t give you individuals,” Levine said, citing privacy laws and rules in Major League Baseball’s operating agreement with players.
Mandate still applies to other city workers
The expanded vaccine exemption covers city-based singers and other entertainers, but the decision frustrated unions of other types of workers who argued the wider mandate isn’t necessary and people fired for not adhering to it should be reinstated.
“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 Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York. He noted the union has been “suing the city for months over its arbitrary and capricious vaccine mandate.”
A United Federation of Teachers spokesperson also took issue with Adams’ move.
“Vaccinations are a critical tool against the spread of Covid, and the city should not create exceptions to its vaccination requirements without compelling reasons,” the UFT spokesperson said. “If the rules are going to be suspended, particularly for people with influence, then the UFT and other city unions are ready to discuss how exceptions could be applied to city workers.”
The executive director of District Council 37, a union of public employees, said “thousands of city workers lost their jobs over the vaccine mandate.”
“These are the same essential workers who kept the city going during the height of the pandemic. They deserve the respect and dignity of having their jobs back,” the DC 37 official, Henry Garrido, said. “They deserve to be treated equally to their private sector counterparts. We demand that those who lost their job over the mandate be reinstated.”
Adams said the city is not reviewing the cases of 1,400 municipal employees who were terminated for not getting vaccinated. The figure includes those who were hired following the mandates with the agreement of getting vaccinated, but ultimately chose not to.
He said officials would continue to promote Covid-19 vaccines, and he hoped the vaccination rates of all the city’s sports teams would reach 100%.
“Kyrie … get vaccinated. Nothing has changed,” Adams said Thursday.
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CNN’s Jason Hanna, Kristina Sgueglia and Jack Bantock contributed to this report.