Late in the first half on Sunday afternoon, a buzz went around Barclays Center. Not for anything happening on the court, but because an unmasked Kyrie Irving had just arrived to take his courtside seat for the Brooklyn Nets' matchup with the New York Knicks. In the latest episode of this season-long saga, Irving has been cleared to attend home games -- like Sunday's 110-107 win over the Knicks -- despite remaining unvaccinated against COVID-19. But while he can now enter Barclays Center, he is still not allowed to play, which has resulted in plenty of confusion and consternation, both inside and outside the franchise.
Late in February, New York City mayor Eric Adams announced that he was planning to remove the city's public sector vaccine and mask mandates. Those rules were officially relaxed on March 7, which meant unvaccinated persons -- including Irving -- were no longer barred from public spaces such as bars, gyms and large venues including Barclays Center.
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So if he's allowed in the building, why is he not allowed to play? New York City also has a private sector vaccine mandate which has been in place since Dec. 27, and Adams announced that it will remain in place. If you work for a New York-based business, you must be vaccinated to show up to work. We saw this in action in February when Adams fired over 1,000 city workers who refused to get the vaccine.
In short, Irving can be at Barclays Center on his own time, but he cannot be there as an employee suiting up for the Nets.
"It would send the wrong message just to have an exception for one player when we're telling countless number of New York City employees, 'If you don't follow the rules, you won't be able to be employed,'" Adams said in an appearance on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" recently.
"Businesses have their vaccine mandate," Adams continued. "City employees have their vaccine mandates. I have to follow the rules. And trust me, I want Kyrie on the court. We are here right now opening our city because of vaccine mandates. We can't close down again."
It may seem strange that Irving can be inside Barclays Center, walk around freely without a mask, sit courtside and hang out with his teammates in the locker room, but not play. That seems to be point that Irving and the Nets are trying to prove by having him show up for a national TV game, and from a pure safety perspective they are right.
LeBron James, Irving's former teammate in Cleveland, weighed in Sunday, saying the rule makes "absolutely zero sense."
Kevin Durant, who scored 53 points in the win over the Knicks, was asked about the mandate after the game. "Pretty much everybody in the world is confused at this point," Durant told reporters. "Early on in the season, people didn't understand what was going on but now, it just looks stupid. Eric [Adams], you gotta figure this out."
Adams, though, has shown no interest in creating a loophole to allow Irving to play, and is not going to remove the mandates for the entire city in order to placate one (extremely high-profile) person. While speaking to reporters on Sunday, Adams was heckled by a fan about Irving not being allowed to play.
"You're right, son," Adams said. "Thank you. Listen, you're right. Kyrie can play tomorrow. Get vaccinated."