Not Ready: Cuomo Unveils Phased Plan to Reopen New York

New Yorkers maintain social distancing and wear face masks while waiting to enter a check-cashing service center late last month in Bushwick. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Laying out a data-based plan for reopening New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a chart marking where each region of the state stood Monday.

With more than a quarter-million confirmed infections, New York has been the hardest-hit state by Covid-19 in the country, home to 26% of total cases and 28% of the 69,063 deaths.

Cuomo’s plan splits New York into 10 regions and sets seven data-driven criteria they must meet to open. None meets all the qualifications so far. 

“May 15th is a possible reopening if you’re ready; this is how you’re ready,” Cuomo said in the press conference that he has held every day through the outbreak, referring to the expiration date he set in one of the first briefings where he announced the policy “New York on Pause.”

The governor pointed outside the United States to countries that reopened too quickly and had to shut back down. 

“Nobody wants that,” Cuomo said. 

Before it can reopen, a New York region must see either a 14-day decline in hospitalizations or fewer than 15 new hospitalizations over a three-day average; a 14-day decline in hospital deaths or a three-day average of fewer than five deaths; and fewer than two new hospitalizations per 100,000 residents. 

There’s also a series of 30s: Regions must also retain 30% empty hospital and ICU beds in case of a surge, be testing 30 of every 1,000 residents per day, and have at least 30 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. 

“You do those things, you will control the rate of transmission of the virus, which is everything,” Cuomo said. 

“Nobody says you’re going to go and eliminate the virus in the short term,” he said. “Nobody. But you can control the rate of transmission. If you can control the rate of transmission, you can control [it] from becoming an outbreak or an epidemic or overwhelming your public health system. That is the best you can do.”

All but three of the regions — New York City and its suburbs, Long Island and the mid-Hudson — fail to meet the testing requirement. New York City in particular has been walloped by Covid-19, accounting for half the state’s cases and over two-thirds of the confirmed deaths. Some of the state’s first recorded cases erupted in the mid-Hudson’s Rockland County, which now has 12,095 infections. Long Island has about six times that, 72,042 cases.

New York City is currently testing about 13,000 people per day for the virus, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday, “but that number has to grow a whole lot more,” he added. The state as a whole has tested over a million people as of Monday. 

Like other experts, epidemiologist Denis Nash said New York cannot reopen safely without drastically increasing its diagnostic testing capabilities. 

“We clearly are not anywhere near having the number of tests that we need, even right now,” said Nash, a distinguished professor at City University of New York, late last week in a phone interview. “And we certainly don’t have the number of people in place that are going to need to do the contact tracing and help monitor people who need to go into isolation and quarantine after the testing.” 

On Cuomo’s reopening checklist, New York City has the smallest percentage of ICU beds empty at just 21%. Long Island met the fewest number of criteria, just two of the seven, while New York City and western New York met just three. 

“If upstate has to wait for downstate to be ready, they’re going to be waiting a long time,” Cuomo said Monday, highlighting the rationale behind his regional approach. 

Each state also must have a stockpile of 90 days’ worth of personal protective equipment based on the level at which they use it with Covid-19, Cuomo said. De Blasio had separately announced earlier Monday the city would be building such a 90-day stockpile, but he did not acknowledge that was a requirement from the state. 

The mayor echoed fears by public health officials of a second wave of the virus this fall and winter, overlapping with flu season. 

“We want to be ready for that,” de Blasio said, emphasizing that the city would start moving items to the reserve once it had built up a two-week supply.  

Nash said that once New York has a more manageable number of cases, it should implement rigorous contact and tracing standards to avoid another full quarantine. 

“So, right now. New York has been, I think, pretty successful at reducing community transmission through the stay at home order,” Nash said. “By the time it’s lifted, it should be very, very low. And so we’re kind of back to a place where we were early on in the epidemic and then a testing and a contact-tracing strategy becomes more feasible.” 

As New York returns to normal, Cuomo emphasized Monday that businesses will not be allowed to all open at once: Those with low infection risk and greater economic impact will be prioritized. 

Construction, manufacturing and select retail shops with curbside pickup will be allowed to open in the state’s first phase, the governor said. Phase 2 will span professional services, which include lawyers, architects and engineers; more retail; administrative support; finance and insurance; and real estate and rental leasing. 

Phases 3 and 4 will include the more recognizable features of a functioning economy like restaurants; hotels; arts, entertainment and recreation; and education, Cuomo said Monday.

Few if any regions are likely to meet all seven criteria Cuomo laid out by the time the New York on Pause order expires May 15. As of Monday, the southern tier near the Pennsylvania border, central New York, the Finger Lakes region, northern New York, and the Mohawk Valley northwest of Albany all met five of the seven requirements. 

New York City’s Covid-19 tracking numbers were all down Monday, de Blasio said. 

“This is the kind of day we have been waiting for, and it is a beautiful thing,” he said. 

But the city had a difficult weekend. Two apparently homeless men were found dead in subway cars within 12 hours of each other, just after the city and state announced a joint effort to shut down the trains every night for four hours of cleaning. Their cause of death had not yet been determined. 

De Blasio said Monday the city would always have a hotel room available for anyone in the shelter system who needed one. 

“There’s been a constant effort to check in on them,” he said of the city’s homeless population.

Video also went viral of an unmasked, plainclothes officer punching a black man for allegedly violating a social-distancing order, while other photos showed cops handing out masks to white people enjoying the weather in parks. 

“I was not happy with what I saw,” NYPD Commissioner Demot Shea said during the mayor’s press conference Monday, referring to the violent incident. “I think we can be better than that, quite frankly.”

As of Monday, New York had 318,953 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 19,415 confirmed fatalities. New York City is home to 170,534 cases, including both confirmed and probable Covid-19 deaths.

As of Monday, the city had 13,536 confirmed and 5,373 suspected virus fatalities. 

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