With the coronavirus pandemic appearing to have passed its peak in New York, the gradual reopening of the epicenter of the national health crisis is starting to take shape.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday outlined his most detailed plan for that reopening, starting with what he called lower risk businesses upstate getting back to work as early as mid May.
“We have to be smart about this,” Cuomo said Tuesday, adding that testing and infection rates and the availability of hospital beds must be at adequate levels.
“Again, I know … people are feeling emotional. Emotions can’t drive our reopening process.”
This is what the reopening of New York State – with more than 22,000 deaths and nearly 300,000 coronavirus cases – could look like:
Upstate manufacturing, construction industries first
These sectors could get back to work in upstate regions sometime after May 15, when the “New York State on Pause” stay-at-home order is supposed to lapse.
Construction and manufacturing jobs represent lower exposure risks for workers.
“Those are two industries that employ a lot of people,” Cuomo said. “We believe you can put the right precautions in place and learn the lessons from where we had been.”
Businesses need to develop detailed reopening plans that address public health concerns.
“How you incorporate social distancing or fewer people into space so (to) reduce density?” the governor asked. “How do you have the right (personal protective equipment) and how are you going to monitor? Are you taking temperatures of everyone who walks in? That’s for businesses to decide.”
Manufacturing and construction account for at least 46,000 jobs in the central part of the state alone.
“It is a major employer,” Cuomo said. “These businesses can adopt to the new normal in terms of their employees and in terms of the processes they put in place.
Cuomo said businesses considered “more essential” with lower risks of infection to workers and customers will be a priority in the second phase. They would be followed by other industries considered “less essential” – those presenting a higher risk of infection spread.
State officials will closely monitor data before each phase. Firms looking to reopen will be evaluated on “how essential a service does that business provide and how risky is that business,” according to Cuomo.
“Remember we have gone through hell and back over the past 60 or so days,” Cuomo said. “What New Yorkers have done has been to save lives. But we have to stay vigilant. This is not over.”
Dr. David Katz, founder of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, agreed the preference for reopening is “a risk-stratified return to the world, with the lowest risk groups in the vanguard.”
“There is still too much we don’t know about this contagion to take anything for granted,” he said via email.
“We should verify every inference with empirical data. So, first out are those presumed to be at lowest risk – good health, under age 50 – and then others back in waves, once it is clear that severe infection rates are as low as projected.”
Decision on school openings will be regional
A decision about the reopening of schools in the state could come by the end of the week, according to Cuomo. It will be made in concert with the governments of New Jersey and Connecticut.
Under consideration are whether schools reopen before the end of the current school year and what to do about summer school in districts that may want to make up for lost time, Cuomo told WAMC radio.
President Donald Trump on Monday urged the nation’s governors to “seriously consider” reopening schools in the push to restart the economy, though many states have already recommended against resuming the school year.
But this late in the school year, it’s unlikely that many students will return to the classrooms in the immediate future.
According to a CNN tally of school closures, 43 states as well as Washington, DC, have ordered or recommended that schools don’t reopen this academic year.
“Does it pay to open schools up for a month or six weeks, or is it better to wait for the fall?” Katz asked. “Are we thinking of running schools through the summer this year?”
Children appear generally to be in the lowest risk group for coronavirus infection, Katz said. Seasonal flu appears far more dangerous for children.
“But there’s more to it than that: what about the teachers? The administrators?” he asked via email.
Parks and beaches are not in the immediate plans
Parks, beaches and waterside attractions will only reopen when it’s considered safe, Cuomo said.
“Density would be the problem,” he said, adding that decisions will be made in collaboration with neighboring states.
Major attractions or businesses that would draw large numbers of people from outside the area will not immediately open.
“We can’t open an attraction that might bring many people from outside the region and then overwhelm people in that region,” Cuomo said. “You have a lot of pent-up demand. We have seen this before, where – when we’re not coordinated – we have New York people going to Connecticut because Connecticut has parks or water slide access that’s open.”
A so-called ‘regional control” of neighboring states
A “regional control room” consisting of state health officials would monitor the reopening. It will guided by information such as hospital capacity and infection rates.
Hospital capacity must be under 70 percent. Areas must show two-week declines in coronavirus cases.
Any red flags raised by regional monitors would activate a “danger button so you can actually slow down the reopening,” Cuomo said, who spoke Tuesday as the number of cases, hospitalizations and intubations decline statewide.
“Some regions upstate have a problem that’s comparable with parts of the Midwest,” Cuomo said. “Much less than New York City.”
Testing, tracing and isolating those exposed will key in the reopening.
“The current recommendation is (that) you need at least 30 tracers per 100,000 people,” the governor said. “We have to have isolation facilities in place.”
Katz said the lack of data representative of the overall US population leaves many questions.
“The more we know, the more reliably we can achieve the goal of total harm minimization: the reduction of health and life lost both to the virus, and to societal collapse, to the irreducible minimum,” he said. “We should proceed in stages because that enables us to adjust and refine, even as we make progress toward normalcy.”