New York City Reopening Is in Sight, as Transit and Other Questions Overhang

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (center) made a guest video appearance at Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press briefing Friday afternoon. A sign-language interpreter is pictured on the right.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The first phase of New York City’s midpandemic reopening begins June 8 with free face coverings for all businesses that need them. 

Continuing the chronic appearance of a lack of communication over the shutdown, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the city’s reopening date this morning just hours after Mayor Bill de Blasio declined at his own press conference to pin one down.

De Blasio briefly appeared at Cuomo’s afternoon speech via teleconference, though a technical glitch cut much of his feed. 

“Our teams talk all day long. We are absolutely on the same page,” the mayor said.  

Both leaders have said the reopening date depends solely on whether cities and regions meet seven data-driven thresholds for keeping the virus under control, including having enough empty hospital beds to handle a surge as well as testing and contact-tracing requirements. 

Though not explicitly one of the state’s criteria for reopening, masks are considered key, when worn properly, to helping reduce the spread of the novel virus that causes Covid-19. 

“Everyone understands that for businesses to work, people are going to have to get into some kind of proximity,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “We need those face coverings to make sure that everyone’s safe, but we don’t want businesses struggling to find them.” 

As on Thursday, big questions lingered in Friday’s press conferences about how the new wave of workers will commute to said jobs, with de Blasio and Cuomo both dodging detail on plans to make pandemic public transportation as safe as possible and focusing on the option of instead taking private cars. 

“I really want to push back on the notion that we can solve everything all the time,” de Blasio said in his press conference Friday, addressing New Yorkers who might not feel safe taking mass transit during a pandemic and saying people “are going to have to improvise.”

Cuomo took a similar tack at his own press conference, doubling down on the cars theme. 

“People always have the choice,” Cuomo said Friday. “Take the train or take the car.” 

But it’s not quite that simple. Car ownership varies drastically by borough in New York City but overall is estimated around 45%. In Manhattan, which spans a little over 13 miles from top to bottom, over 76% of residents do not own cars. Between 200,000 and 400,000 additional workers are expected to return during Phase 1 in the city. Bus drivers, health care workers and other frontline workers who have reported for duty all along number about 1 million, according to the office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Many will have no choice but to use public transit.

To date, the virus has sickened 199,038 and killed an estimated 21,477 in New York City, according to city numbers. Statewide, 368,284 have tested positive for Covid-19 and 23,780 have died. The state does not count “probable” Covid-19 deaths, while the city does, so the state’s fatality numbers are likely low. 

Cuomo did say Friday that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state-controlled entity that runs the New York City subway, will continue its daily disinfecting protocol, require masks for all riders, and limit the number of people on trains, though he did not provide more details. 

“You have to wear a mask,” he said. “And that’s going to be part of the protocol, and they’re going to be doing the best they can to stagger volume on trains, et cetera. And they’re going to have personnel who are working to limit how many people get onto a train and do the staging.”

In a joint statement Friday, four groups that advocate for better public transit and green transportation alternatives called on the mayor to take more action to get people to work safely. 

“Mayor de Blasio controls over 6,000 miles of streets, and he does not have to allow devastating congestion to take shape,” they said. “The mayor can embrace the solutions being advanced across the country and around the globe, and quickly turn many miles of streets into busways or protected bike lanes that can safely transport millions of New Yorkers concerned about immediately returning to the subway, and unable to afford a car or regular trips in for-hire vehicles.” 

The statement came from the groups Bike New York, Regional Plan Association, Riders Alliance and Transportation Alternatives. 

New York City says it is rapidly hiring contact tracers to meet the state’s requirement of 30 per 100,000 residents. But thanks to an investigation by local news nonprofit The City, the vague and “frenetic” hiring process for the Big Apple’s contact tracing has also fallen under scrutiny. 

The outlet found the city has engaged a private, for-profit firm called UnitedHealth Group, which hired at least 700 “monitors,” paying $20–$22 an hour for the sensitive contact-tracing work. The jobs had been advertised as government positions that could pay $57,000 to $65,000 a year.

After butting heads over school closures and other measures with the city’s health department — which wanted more aggressive measures at the start of the Covid-19 crisis in the city — de Blasio made the controversial decision to place the city’s public hospital system in charge of contact tracing, though the health department has always handled it in the past.

He defended his decision by saying Health and Hospitals had the capacity to make thousands of swift hires. But a story by Politico showed the switch may have cost the city at least a week of valuable time in a crisis in which time is of the essence.

Though de Blasio asked the state earlier this week for borrowing authority to cover $7 billion of the $9 billion the city is expected to lose in revenue as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, it doesn’t look like he’ll get it: NY1 politics reporter Gloria Pazmino tweeted yesterday that she’d learned the borrowing bill was dead in Albany. 

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