MANHATTAN (CN) — In welcome news for New Yorkers pent up in the coronavirus lockdown, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday that he has come up with a plan to close at least 40 miles of city roads off to traffic.
These roads will be opened up to pedestrians and outfitted with bike lanes within the next month, with de Blasio aiming to close 100 miles by the time the pandemic ends.
Streets around the parks, and neighborhoods hit hardest by the virus — the majority of which are disproportionately lower-income — will be the primary focus of the initiative.
“This summer is going to look different from any other in our city’s history —and we’re ready to give New Yorkers more ways to leave home while staying safe from Covid-19,” de Blasio said Monday in a joint press release with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
Streets that run through or are adjacent to parks will account for up to 60 miles of the initiative, and the city will work with local partners then to identify another 30 possible miles that can be closed. The city also plans to widen sidewalks for up to 2.5 miles and add up to 10 miles of protected bike lanes, according to the release.
It was an abrupt about-face for the mayor who had previously said any system of closed-off streets would be unenforceable. The City Council last week introduced a bill that would open 75 miles of streets, which the transportation committee discussed over Zoom on Friday.
Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy organization for walking, biking and public transit, applauded the announcement.
“At 100 miles, this would be one of the most ambitious Open Streets programs in the United States,” Joe Cutrufo, a spokesman for the group said in a statement Monday. “New York has 6,000 miles of streets, which are primarily devoted to car traffic and parking. In opening our streets to people, New York City will unlock countless opportunities not only for physical distancing during the Covid-19 crisis, but also in the longer term for sustained economic recovery, reimagining urban life and prioritizing public transportation.”
Research has found that New York’s sidewalks are simply too narrow for people to socially distance from each other while walking, running or biking, and people need access to fresh air and exercise for physical and mental health — as well as to safely walk to grocery stores and pharmacies.
At a separate press conference Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said it was “almost an oxymoron” to tell people to socially distance on a New York City sidewalk.
“I said, figure it out,” he said of de Blasio’s prior disagreement with the City Council on the initiative. “If they can’t figure it out, I’ll get involved. But you need to have streets that are open.”
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson tweeted Sunday that the Council had been prepared to bring Cuomo in if de Blasio refused to act. De Blasio said Monday morning that his discussions with City Council had had a “very positive spirit.”
The mayor also announced Monday that New York City will hire 1,000 experienced health care workers as contact tracers to help track those infected with Covid-19. The workers can expect a salary of between $55,000–$65,000, said city officials.
Self-swab Covid-19 diagnostic tests are coming to New York as well, de Blasio announced Monday, a month after the Food and Drug Administration approved the practice. Testing will remain confined to health facilities, but de Blasio said the new approach would speed up their capabilities, allowing them to conduct 20 tests per hour instead of 15.
As self-swab tests involve a patient swabbing their own nose and spitting into a cup to provide effective samples, de Blasio said they pose less risk to health care workers and should allow the city to conserve personal protective equipment. Some sexual health clinics already let patients swab themselves for testing purposes.
While the state’s stay-at-home order, “New York on Pause,” expires on May 15, Cuomo said Monday that it will likely be extended in parts of the state. New York City, for example, accounts for over half of all confirmed cases and nearly two-thirds of all confirmed deaths.
“We all have to be smart about it,” Cuomo said.
Up to 7,500 people so far have participated in a study where New Yorkers are tested at grocery stores for Covid-19 antibodies, indicating they had the virus at one point, Cuomo said. While experts caution the numbers must not be taken too seriously until the state releases more information about the tests and methods it used, the study does continue to suggest Covid-19 is much more widespread in New York than was previously thought.
Monday’s results, Cuomo announced, indicate that 14.9% of all New Yorkers had antibodies for the virus. Breaking it down by sex, 13% of women tested were positive and almost 17% of men. A whopping 24.7% of New York City residents have antibodies, according to the study, which also points to substantial race disparities: 32% of Latino and Hispanic New Yorkers were found to have antibodies, compared with nearly 17% of black New Yorkers, about 9% of white New Yorkers, and over 14% of Asian New Yorkers.
“Data from the initial survey is still being analyzed at the Wadsworth Center,” Jonah Bruno at the state health department said in an email Monday. “More information will be made available when the analysis is complete.”
Experts say that data is crucial for evaluating the study’s accuracy.
“I think we need to continue to put pressure on those releasing these results to provide some sort of technical summary of their methods. Otherwise, it is hard to evaluate their reliability,” Natalie Dean, a biostatistics professor at the University of Florida’s College of Public Health and Health Professions, said in an email Monday.
Telling the public to take the data with a grain of salt last week, Cuomo emphasized that the state’s official death toll does not include presumed Covid-19 deaths, such as those who died at home or those who were never tested — so the new numbers are likely undercounting the mortality rate.
Those with antibodies are presumed to have some immunity from Covid-19. Over the weekend, however, the World Health Organization warned against using antibody tests to generate so-called “immunity passports” for reopening purposes, and Cuomo himself recognized that guidance Monday.
Also Monday, the New York State Board of Elections announced it would cancel the state’s presidential primary, scheduled for June 23. On Friday Cuomo announced absentee ballot applications would be mailed to all registered voters, who will still be able to cast those ballots for other state and federal primary races.