MANHATTAN (CN) — Incrementally easing some of the restrictions governing his Covid-19-battered state, Governor Andrew Cuomo detailed the steps New York is taking to have beaches open next week for Memorial Day.
New York has joined with New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware on the decision in a regional approach that “accommodates all needs,” Cuomo said at his daily press conference Friday, a day after New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced beaches would be open in a joint livestream with former Vice President Joe Biden.
“If we do not open our beaches, people will go to New Jersey beaches, I promise you that,” Cuomo said.
Five regions of New York state were cleared to open Friday morning, though New York City, its suburbs and Buffalo remain closed. Cuomo extended his shutdown order for those regions Friday through May 28.
The Finger Lakes, Central New York, the Southern Tier, the Mohawk Valley, and the rural North County are now all allowed to begin construction, manufacturing and curbside pickup for retail. But they must meticulously monitor infection rates and other numbers designated by the state and react to any increases, Cuomo warned.
“We expect the rate will go up, but it has to be a rate that we can control,” the governor said.
As of Friday, New York state counted 345,813 confirmed cases and 22,304 confirmed fatalities.
Social-distancing measures still in place mean that beaches must not exceed 50% capacity, and concessions and group activities like grills and sport spaces will be closed. Beachgoers and staff must also wear masks when they are not able to socially distance, Cuomo said.
Localities such as New York City must decide by Wednesday, May 20, if they are able to open their own beaches, Cuomo said. If they cannot, state beaches will require more enforcement as more people flock to them, he added. If a beach is found unable to enforce the many regulations, the governor said it would be closed by the following day.
De Blasio said Friday the city’s beaches would not be open by next weekend.
“On the beaches, we’re just not ready,” he said at his own press conference in Manhattan, later adding, “and it’s painful because we would all love to be able to go to the beach with the hot weather, but it’s not safe yet.”
New York City is the hardest-hit part of the state, with 187,848 confirmed cases and at least 20,476 confirmed and probable Covid-19 deaths.
De Blasio did lay out new measures by the city to keep people cool as the weather heats up to potentially dangerous levels this summer and many residents lack central air conditioning. The city will purchase over 74,000 air conditioners, 22,000 of which will go to those who live in low-income housing run by the NYCHA. Installations will start next week, he said.
The city typically provides air-conditioned cooling centers during heat waves, which this year will need to accommodate social distancing and may include nontraditional sites such as sports venues and auditoriums, de Blasio said.
So-called “misting oases” and spray showers will be added to parks and low-income neighborhoods, and the Department of Environmental Protection is creating a plan to open fire hydrants, de Blasio said. The city will also encourage the state to mandate generator hookups at adult care facilities in case of power outages.
Facing criticism for his deployment of the NYPD to enforce social-distancing rules, which resulted in over 80% of summonses being issued to black and Hispanic New Yorkers, de Blasio noted Friday that the massive police force would prioritize dispersing groups of six or more, focus on education, and not take enforcement action on a failure to wear a face covering “absent a serious danger to the public.”
“A lot of the elected officials made this point — it was a very fair point — that there’s a positive approach that can work,” de Blasio said. “And NYPD can play its role in that to remind people, get it out, the face covering.”
The police department will also limit access to the famous Sheep Meadow in Central Park, as well as limiting access in a separate park and monitoring a third, de Blasio said.
New York City councilmembers also grilled health officials about the city’s Covid-19 response Friday in a joint oversight hearing by the health and hospital committees. De Blasio has fallen under scrutiny for his response to the pandemic, including his decision to move the responsibility for contact tracing from the city’s health department, which typically handles it, to the public hospital system.
“We can’t tell the difference between the professional work the mayor is doing and the political work he’s doing during this time,” Councilman Antonio Reynoso of Brooklyn said during the virtual hearing Friday.
Hospitals committee chair Carlina Rivera of Manhattan raised concerns that Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, who is Latina, is possibly being unfairly targeted for the city’s sluggish Covid-19 response. Most of the decision makers throughout the pandemic have been white men, Rivera noted.
“We just have a lot of concerns in terms of being women of color,” said Rivera, calling it a “disservice to New Yorkers” not to have diverse voices in the room. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are dying at higher rates than their percentages of the city’s population, while white and Asian New Yorkers are dying at lower rates.
“One of the most important things is that we have a diverse team going into our communities that have been devastated,” said Rivera of the importance of hiring a diverse group of contact tracers to help the city track infections.
Testifying on behalf of the Hispanic Federation at the hearing Friday afternoon, Bethsy Morales-Reid also emphasized the importance of contact tracers who are trusted in their communities, and called for public outreach from the city in Spanish-language media.
“Community-members must have confidence that the information they provide to contact tracers is truly confidential,” she said, emphasizing that people might be hesitant to provide the name of an undocumented friend or relative who lives with them but isn’t listed on their lease.
“To have effective, accurate and candid conversations with community members, contact tracers must have cultural and linguistic competency appropriate for the local community. For these reasons, it is imperative that contact tracers come directly from the communities they are working in.”
Ted Long, a white man tapped by the mayor to lead the city’s test and trace initiative, said he plans to prioritize diversity.
“We prioritize clients from high-risk or high-vulnerability zip codes and we bring them to the front of the line for interviews, front of the line for hires,” he said.
Mitchell Katz, president and CEO of the city’s public Health and Hospitals system, defended his agency’s ability to rapidly hire contact tracers and handle the logistics of the massive test and trace initiative.
“This is the sheer logistics of putting 1,000 people on payroll, correctly,” he said. “As an agency I can hire more rapidly than people in a department … it’s about the speed with which an agency can hire.”
Cuomo warned New Yorkers Friday to take the pandemic seriously.
“I cannot stress highly enough — do not underestimate this virus and do not play with this virus,” he said. “Everyone is vulnerable to this virus. Everyone. And government can’t keep you safe — only you can keep yourself safe.”