MANHATTAN (CN) — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rode the subway Monday morning to prove that the trains are safe for commuters as the city joined the rest of the state in loosening restrictions meant to keep the coronavirus pandemic in check.
“If the subway isn’t safe for me, then I wouldn’t ask anyone else to go on the subway,” Cuomo said in his daily press conference from Manhattan and in an afternoon tweet.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been disinfecting the train cars every night between 1 and 5 a.m. Hand sanitizer is being made available and masks are mandatory, Cuomo said, also urging New Yorkers to observe physical-distancing practices.
Though there is no space to take when trains get crowded, the MTA has said it will increase service to help limit crowding.
“We went from the worst situation in the nation — frankly, one of the worst situations on the globe — to not only flattening the curve but bending the curve,” Cuomo said Monday, which marks 100 days since the city’s first confirmed Covid-19 case.
But in recent months Cuomo has faced sharp criticism for delaying lockdowns in his state, which if implemented just a week earlier could have saved 17,500 lives in the New York metro area alone, according to May estimates. He has also faced criticism for a policy of forcing nursing homes to take in previously hospitalized, Covid-19 positive patients. Nursing home deaths in the state are over 5,000.
Given that recent research shows most Covid-19 transmission occurs person-to-person in enclosed spaces, many New Yorkers remain wary of the subway. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has done little to provide them other transportation options, however, saying New Yorkers who could drive would probably drive — even though a minority of New York City households own a car.
On Monday, de Blasio announced a plan to create 20 miles of busways in the city between June and October to make bus travel faster and smoother. The announcement falls well short of the 60 miles sought by the MTA. De Blasio also announced increased service on the Staten Island Ferry but did not offer additional options for cyclists or pedestrians.
“More service equals less crowding equals more health and safety,” de Blasio said in remarks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Monday. “That’s what we want to achieve. … We have to make it easier for people to get around.”
Each of the five new bus lines will be launched on a one-year trial basis, and if they go well, they will become permanent, he said.
Cuomo also touted numbers that show the percentage of New Yorkers testing positive for Covid-19 has dropped. At the peak of the pandemic’s first wave, he said, 59% of all New Yorkers tested positive; on June 2, that number was 2%. But those numbers are slightly misleading, as test shortages in the early months of the outbreak limited testing only to the sickest New Yorkers. Now, New York City has free universal testing.
Cuomo also spoke about police reform efforts in the state, after a week and a half of unrest and massive protests over racism and police violence. As he spoke, New York Assembly Democrats held their own press conference on the issue.
De Blasio has said in recent days he plans to cut the NYPD’s nearly $6 billion budget, though he refused to say by how much, and direct the funding instead to youth and social services for communities of color. He also plans to move vendor enforcement away from the NYPD and establish a “community ambassadors” program within the agency.
De Blasio also lifted the city’s curfew a day early, on Saturday instead of Sunday.
The city has 204,253 cases and 21,877 confirmed and probable deaths, though case numbers are expected to rise as protesters come down with the virus. They are encouraged to get tested — Cuomo said Monday the state will perform 35,000 tests per day in New York City and is prioritizing 15 testing sites across the city for those who participated in the protests.
“Those [protesters] are walking next to each other, they are talking … they are screaming,” said Luisa Borrell, an epidemiologist and distinguished professor at the City University of New York who studies racial and ethnic disparities in health, in a phone interview last week.
Like many other public health workers, however, Borrell said the protests are crucial for the health of black Americans as well.
“We should have been protesting a long time ago,” Borrell said. “We should have been protesting for 400 years … I think that the outrage of people was just too much.”
After the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Borrell continued said, “people got to the point that enough is enough.”
Of estimated rises in case numbers over the next few weeks, Borrell said, she thinks it will be a “hard call” to blame protesters completely. She acknowledged protests will be a “contributor.” But many regions had spiking case numbers before the protests due to localities reopening before they had the virus under control.