Drive to Work: de Blasio Gives New Yorkers Tone-Deaf Advice on Mass Transit

A social worker holds the hand of a passenger found sleeping on a subway car in Manhattan as NYPD officers clear the trains and direct riders to the exits at the 207th Street A-train station on April 30. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

MANHATTAN (CN) — As the city prepares to gradually reopen its economy after a devastating monthslong wave of Covid-19 that killed at least 21,000 New Yorkers, one gaping question remains: how employees will get to work.

Politicians and health leaders have been instructing the public to observe physical distancing by staying at least six feet away from each other to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets that carry the novel coronavirus. In the months or years before a vaccine is found, however, such guidance hinders the possibility of safely making use of buses or subways at pre-pandemic levels.

At separate press conferences in Manhattan, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo avoided substantial answers to practical transportation questions Thursday. De Blasio for one said New Yorkers will “make their own choices” about how they get to work during the pandemic. 

“You may see people use their cars more in the short-term — if they have a car — or use for-hire vehicles, for example, but that’s a short-term reality,” de Blasio, who has developed a reputation as a car-loving leader, said Thursday. He didn’t offer options for those who don’t have cars but also aren’t comfortable on public transit, or what social distancing will look like in a system that averages more than 5 million riders on a given weekday.

“I think you’re going to see a certain number of people who, their only option is to take a subway or bus, and they’ll come back to it,” he added later. “But we still have to set the right limits to make sure that experience is safe. We need social distancing, we need face coverings for folks in the subways and buses.”

De Blasio said the conversation about how many people can safely ride in a subway car or bus is “happening right now” but did not offer specifics.

The city has tracked 198,255 confirmed cases of the virus. 

Construction, agriculture, retail with curbside pickup, manufacturing and wholesale trade are the industries permitted to reopen, with safety restrictions, during Phase 1 of the state’s reopening process. De Blasio estimates that this stage encompasses 200,000 workers citywide at a minimum. While he laid out guidelines for keeping workers safe on the job — six feet of distance, protective equipment, regular cleaning of surfaces — he didn’t specify how they should get there. The New York Stock Exchange reopened to some employees earlier this week with the specific mandate that none use public transit.

De Blasio has also been slow to close streets off to cars, so that biking, jogging and walking during the crisis is more conceivable. On Thursday, he offered no plan for making the subway safer. 

He has repeatedly said he expects the city to enter Phase 1 in the first or second week or June but has also said the numbers alone will direct the exact start date.

While the subway has not been directly linked to dramatically increased spread of the virus in New York City this year, basic public health recommendations about physical distancing remain as regions slowly reopen. Ridership dropped 90% during the peak of the outbreak. 

For weeks, the New York City subway has undergone nightly disinfections, and the city is testing a pilot program that uses ultraviolet light to kill the virus on train cars. Surface disinfecting does nothing meanwhile to prevent potential person-to-person spread.

In London, pandemic-era subway cars can be no more than 14% full and still have passengers physically distant, according to a leaked report covered by the BBC. They can board just 50,000 passengers per 15 minutes instead of the usual 325,000 in the same time frame. 

Cuomo spoke in Brooklyn Thursday alongside Brooklyn-bred celebrities Chris Rock and Rosie Perez — but notably without de Blasio. Rock and Perez urged their fellow New Yorkers to seek out diagnostic tests and to wear face coverings. 

“There’s a saying, ‘Spread love to Brooklyn way.’ … Spreading love the Brooklyn way means respecting your neighbors, respecting your communities. And the way you can do that is by getting tested, wearing a mask. … I don’t care who you voted for. I don’t care who you’re going to vote for. All I care is that we get out of this pandemic as quickly as possible and as safely as possible,” said Perez, who got her start in Spike Lee’s iconic Brooklyn film “Do the Right Thing.” 

Though the state has laid out seven data-based criteria regions must meet before reopening, De Blasio uses slightly different metrics in his daily press conferences to illustrate how close his city is to that milestone. According to the state, the main metric holding back the city is the percentage of total open hospital beds — the state requires regions to have 30% empty beds in their hospitals, and New York City currently has 28%, according to the state’s dashboard. 

But at his press conferences, de Blasio focuses only on three metrics: the number of patients in the ICUs of public hospitals, new hospital admissions, and the percentage of all residents tested who test positive for Covid-19. He has focused on the ICU patient metric as being too high — on Thursday, 421 over a limit of 375.

The state, however, defines its only ICU metric as the share of ICU beds available, which must also be over 30%. According to the state, New York City has cleared out 32% of its ICU beds, meaning it has met that metric. Only the state’s criteria matter in reopening. 

Avery Cohen, a City Hall spokesperson, said in an email Thursday that the mayor’s ICU metric “specifically measures the capacity of our public hospital network.”

“They were hit especially hard by the crisis, and the health of their infrastructure is essential as we prepare to re-open,” Cohen added.

Cohen did not clarify how the city’s ICU metric is related to the total open hospital bed metric or why the mayor continues to use different numbers. 

“We’re monitoring the state’s indicators constantly and working in very close coordination with them to ensure we re-open safely,” she wrote.

Cuomo, too, dismissed questions Thursday that he and de Blasio were operating on different assumptions with regard to reopening metrics.  

“We’re on totally the same page because there’s only one page,” he said. “I don’t know where you see different pages. There’s state guidelines, period. And that’s it. So there’s only one page. So you can’t be on a different page when you only have one page.”

As of Thursday, the state counted 366,733 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 23,722 deaths, though those numbers are likely higher as the state does not track deaths that were likely caused by Covid-19 but not confirmed with testing. 

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