NYC mayor Eric Adams allows athletes unvaccinated against COVID-19 to play home games

NEW YORK -- New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday that the mandate for unvaccinated athletes and performers has been lifted.

"This is about putting New York athletes on a level playing field," Adam said during a news conference at Citi Field. "We were treating our performers differently because they live and play in New York City."

What that means in the short term for teams like the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, New York Yankees and New York Mets is that unvaccinated players will be able to play in home games.

The most high-profile case is Nets star guard Kyrie Irving, who is not vaccinated against COVID-19 and made clear he would not be getting the vaccine at any point. The Nets originally started the season without Irving because of his decision not to get vaccinated, but ultimately decided to reverse course and allow Irving to be a part-time player after a COVID outbreak within the team in December.

Asked why athletes and performers are receiving an exemption from vaccine policies but not teachers, police officers, firefighters and stadium workers, Adams said the exemption already existed for athletes and performers who do not live in New York City, a policy that existed under former mayor Bill de Blasio.

"A small number of people have an outsized impact on our economy," Adams said referring to athletes.

Yankees president Randy Levine said one of the driving factors for the teams to lobby City Hall was the economic impact on the neighborhoods around Yankee Stadium and Citi Field.

Mets president Sandy Alderson said because the Mets are a vaccine-mandated employer, those who worked for the team who did not comply were fired. When asked about why unvaccinated team employees were fired but unvaccinated athletes can now play games, Alderson pointed toward the players' unions, which protect athletes.

"Because of the player unions, they fall outside of our mandate," Alderson said.

Levine said that players who are not unvaccinated will still be unable to play games in Toronto.

"It's still a problem," Levine said. "We hope to get everyone vaccinated."

Adams did not rule out the possibility that vaccine exemptions for athletes could be rolled back if another outbreak occurs across New York City.

A week ago, Adams urged Irving to get vaccinated. He did not change that message Thursday.

"Kyrie, you should get vaccinated," Adams said. "This does not change my message that everyone should get vaccinated."

Irving rejoined the Nets in early January and was steadfast in his choice not to be vaccinated, saying he was "rooted in my decision."

"It's not going to be swayed just because of one thing in this NBA life," Irving said after a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 17. "That somehow it's brought to my attention as being more important than what's going on in the real world. It's just not happening for me.

"Again, I respect everyone else's decision, I'm not going to ever try to convince anyone of anything or any of that, I'm just standing rooted in what I believe in ... I just know that I'm protected by the organization, I'm protected by my teammates, I'm protected by all the doctors I've talked to. And I just stand rooted."

Adams' decision to roll back the mandate comes as a bit of a surprise given that during a Tuesday news conference he made it clear that New York City's professional sports teams would have to wait their turn as far as the mandates were concerned.

"Right now, we're going to take some complaints," Adams said, while announcing that masks will be optional for children in day care between the ages of 2 and 4 starting on April 4 if the COVID-19 numbers hold.

"But when this is all said and done, people are going to realize this is a thoughtful administration and we got it right. So baseball, basketball, businesses, all of those things, they have to wait until that layer comes."

The layer that teams were all waiting on was a rollback of the private employer mandate, which does not allow employees to work in the office -- or in this case players to play for their teams -- if they are not vaccinated against COVID-19.

The rollback has finally come for Irving just before the regular season ends. The Nets have nine regular-season games remaining, and Irving will now be able to play in all of them. While the Nets didn't want to discuss the mandate being rolled back until it became official, Irving, who turned 30 on Wednesday, wore a big smile as he walked out of the visitors locker room inside FedEx Forum in Memphis. The feeling of both joy and relief was palpable throughout the Nets' organization with the realization that Irving would finally be able to participate on a full-time basis.

"I can't wait to talk to you guys once something's official," Irving said.

ESPN's Nick Friedell contributed to this report.