New York City, long the epicenter of the global coronavirus crisis, is poised to start reopening in slightly more than a week, setting the stage for a slow and tentative recovery after two months of suffering, social isolation and economic hardship.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Friday that he expected the city to meet several benchmarks that would permit millions of virus-weary residents to enjoy the first signs of a normal life by June 8. Retail stores could open for curbside or in-store pickup, and nonessential construction and manufacturing could resume, part of an initial phase that could send as many as 400,000 people back to work.
As other parts of the nation, including less populated sections of New York State, have already reopened, New York City, which lost more than 20,000 lives to the virus, has taken much longer to recover. It required a gargantuan effort to even reach the point where officials were comfortable with loosening the restrictions on movement and commerce that were put in place in March.
Deaths in New York have dropped to only dozens a day, rather than the 700 or 800 a day that were taking place in April, and the number of virus patients on intensive care in the city’s public hospitals has fallen by more than half.
That progress largely came because many New Yorkers followed the rules, and have been wearing masks and maintaining social distance as requested. The rewards of vigilance have been manifest not only in decreasing fatalities, but also in the declining number of people testing positive for the virus and those requiring hospital stays because of it.
“I am proud of the way New York is figuring it out,” Mr. Cuomo said.
But even with the strides the city has made, the road to normalcy will no doubt be steep and rocky. Since February, nearly 900,000 local jobs have vanished and thousands of businesses have closed their doors — some forever. Revenues from sales taxes are expected to drop by $1 billion, part of a frightening $9 billion estimated budget shortfall that could push officials into risky borrowing and force drastic cuts to essential city services.
Even as the weather warms and summer nears, once bustling swaths of Midtown Manhattan remain all but abandoned, marred by vacant streets and shuttered storefronts. The subway system is limping along at record low ridership. Tourism has evaporated. Broadway theaters plan to remain dark at least until Labor Day, and many industry leaders say they may stay closed until January.
Under the first phase of reopening, much of the city would still be shut down, with restaurants and bars limited to takeout service and offices, gyms, movie houses and grooming salons all closed.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, appearing virtually with Mr. Cuomo on Friday, seemed optimistic as he called the plan to begin reopening in June “the gateway to the next big step.” But neither he nor the governor have figured out certain crucial details yet, perhaps most notably how to get hundreds of thousands of commuters safely back onto public transit.
On Thursday, Mr. de Blasio said that between 200,000 and 400,000 people in New York could return to work under the first phase of recovery. But when questioned on Friday if the city was prepared for the coming spike in traffic, he appeared to dodge the issue, saying that many city dwellers would simply walk or bike to their jobs while others would drive or take taxis.
“For the next few months, people are going to make their own choices,” the mayor said. “Some people are going to be comfortable with mass transit, some are not. We just have to be honest and real about that.”
While Mr. Cuomo insisted that the subways were safe, he also said that it would be up to riders themselves not to create a public health risk by violating social distancing protocols.
“We will need a cooperative public where if you’re on a subway platform and you see it is crowded, ‘OK, wait for the next one,’” he said.
Both leaders cautioned that while the dangers of the virus had clearly receded, New Yorkers needed to continue taking measures to keep its spread in check. More than 5,000 people in the city tested positive for infection last week alone — a steep drop from early April, when 40,000 people a week were testing positive, but still a significant number.
Officials have required each of the state’s 10 regions to meet seven health-related metrics before beginning the reopening process. New York City, the only region that has yet to do so, has not reached the state’s benchmark of having 30 percent of its hospital beds available to virus patients — it was close, at 28 percent — nor has it deployed enough contact tracers to adequately track the spread of the disease.
Earlier this month, Mr. de Blasio said he wanted to amass an army of more than 1,000 contact tracers who act as disease detectives, calling everyone a person with the virus has run into in order to map potential vectors of infection. Having a robust contact tracing program is crucial to quelling the outbreak and paving the way to reopening. But in a sharp departure from tradition, the city took the project away from public health officials and gave it to the public hospital system.
Despite such lingering problems, New York has come a long way since the first dark days of the pandemic, when ambulance sirens wailed around the clock and hospitals were so swamped with incoming patients that some were dying untreated in emergency rooms.
After an initial shock, New Yorkers accustomed themselves with unexpected speed to the new realities of wearing nitrile gloves to walk their dogs and standing on strips of masking tape spaced six feet apart while paying for their groceries.
Reopening the city could prove tricky, however, especially if residents — inured to social distancing rules — are suddenly thrust back into contact with their neighbors in coffee shops or on packed subway platforms. Tensions have already emerged from time to time as prickly city dwellers have gotten used to policing one another about their sense of personal space and mask-wearing habits.
Under Mr. Cuomo’s plan, New York City will have to remain at Phase 1, the lowest level of openness, for at least two weeks as health officials make sure that new infections do not creep up and that hospitals maintain their state of readiness. State officials are planning to distribute free face coverings to businesses in the city that are preparing to reopen and to set up a hotline that employers can call for what the governor described as “practical questions.”
Much of upstate New York was given permission on Friday to enter Phase 2, which allows most stores, offices and hair salons to open, with restrictions on capacity and social distance.
New York City, however, was nowhere near such freedoms, and it remained unclear how and when it could get there.
“Nobody has been here before,” Mr. Cuomo said, acknowledging that even he was unsure how the city would move forward.
“Nobody can give you the answers,” he confessed. “They don’t even know the questions.”
Azi Paybarah and Katie Van Syckle contributed reporting.
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