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Battered by Coronavirus Outbreak, NYC Finally Moves Toward Reopening

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 as early as 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 reopened, New York City, which lost more than 20,000 lives to the virus, has taken 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 face coverings 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 of 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 an estimated $9 billion budget shortfall that could push officials into risky borrowing and force drastic cuts to essential city services.

Even as 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 and delivery 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 millions 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 commuters, 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 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 benchmark of having 30 percent of its hospital beds available — 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 sick person 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.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

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 waiting to pay 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.

Source: NY times

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