New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced the light at the end of the coronavirus pandemic tunnel, revealing regions of the Empire State should prepare for reopening after the state-wide pause is set to end on May 15.
“We start a new chapter today in many ways. It’s a new phase,” Cuomo said at a press briefing from Rochester Regional Health. “We are, from my point of view, on the other side of the mountain. Now we can intelligently turn toward reopening.”
As the rate of new COVID-19 cases in New York has declined to the rate of “about where we started this horrific situation,” Cuomo said the state is ready to begin a “safe” and prepared reopening.
Cuomo said the state has been broken down into 10 regions, each ranked across seven metrics related to the rate of infection and the hospital capacity for their residents. In the most concrete step toward restarting the virus-stricken state, Cuomo said three regions—the Southern Tier, Mohawk Valley, and the Finger Lakes—have met the readiness metrics and proved they have controlled their infection rate and established local hospitals have the capacity and testing to handle any possible virus resurgence.
“Some regions are ready to go today,” Cuomo said, noting that other regions are very close to begin the re-opening process. “This is the next big phase in the historic journey.”
To date, 26,000 people in New York have died and hundreds of thousands more have been infected by the deadly virus. Though 161 more New Yorkers died overnight, Cuomo said the state is “over the mountain” as the rate of hospitalizations, intubations, and ICU admissions have all dramatically declined.
“When you see the number of lives lost, again, we’re right about where we started before we really went into the heart of this crisis. And that’s what it’s been. It’s been a crisis and a painful one. But we’re coming out of the other side. So in many ways, from my point of view, we’re on the other side of the mountain, right?”
The latest numbers, Cuomo said, gave him the confidence to begin the phased reopening, which, starting this weekend—with limited construction, manufacturing, and curbside retail—is the first move toward a return to public life in over 10 weeks.
“When we reopen, we’re talking about a phased reopening… the question is moderating that reopening to do it intelligently,” Cuomo said. “This reopening phase is locally driven, regionally driven.”
The phase-in to a post-virus world comes just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data that indicates New York City has been massively undercounting deaths associated with COVID-19.
The data states that while the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has reported 13,831 deaths, and 5,048 probable COVID-19-associated deaths as of May 2—it does not include deaths among residents who did not have access to testing, tested falsely negative, got infected after testing negative, or a health-care provider did not see the virus as cause of death.
Between March 11 and May 2, the CDC reports that approximately 24,172 people died in association with the coronavirus. But according to the New York City Department of Health, there were 5,293—or 22 percent of the total number of all deaths in the city—excess deaths “that were not identified as either laboratory-confirmed.”
“The 5,293 excess deaths not identified as confirmed or probable COVID-19-associated deaths might have been directly or indirectly attributable to the pandemic,” the CDC said in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “The percentages of these excess deaths that occurred in persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 or resulted from indirect impacts of the pandemic are unknown and require further investigation.”
These “excess deaths,” which occurred outside of the confirmed and probable numbers because they were not directly associated with a COVID-19 diagnosis, indicates the death toll in New York may be far higher than projected.
The CDC also notes that “COVID-19-associated mortality is higher in persons with underlying chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes and deaths in persons with these chronic health conditions might not be recognized as being directly attributable to COVID-19”—calling into question how deaths in New York City are being reported and categorized.
In New York City on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that while new hospital admissions and the percent of residents testing positive have decreased, the city of 8.3 million won’t likely see the ease in restrictions until June.
“I think it is fair to say June is when we’re going to potentially be able to make some real changes if we can continue our progress,” de Blasio said during his daily coronavirus briefing. The mayor said that despite indications that New York City is ahead of the virus, he is worried that lifting restrictions too soon would leave to a “boomerang” effect across the five boroughs.
To avoid a spike in COVID-19 cases, de Blasio said that city officials are focused on three indicators—daily hospitalization rate, ICU admissions, and percentage of new cases—to decide when to reopen non-essential businesses. “We are going to always go by the data,” de Blasio said. “It’s been pretty good and pretty consistent, but it is quite not where we want it to be but definitely trending in the right direction. But we need to see it sustained in a deeper way and right now that takes us into June.”
Under the state reopening plan first revealed last week, the first phase will allow manufacturing and construction operations to begin with strict social-distancing guidelines, staggered shifts, and frequent disinfecting. Some businesses will also be allowed to open for curbside service.
After two weeks, Cuomo said retail, finance, and professional services will be allowed to carefully lift restrictions with mandatory health screenings and safety guidelines.
The third phase, which would occur after another two weeks, would allow restaurants, hospitals, and other hospitality businesses to have a limited opening, followed by arts and entertainment venues. Cuomo stressed that education and entertainment sectors will be the last to resume because of the high density.
Cuomo also said Monday there will be a “circuit breaker” in control rooms for each region, which will monitor the number of local infections and hospital rates to avoid any possible resurgence.
He said that if regions that begin to open see a surge in new virus cases, or a decline in one of the seven metrics, the “circuit breaker” will alert local officials to immediately lock down the region again.
Despite the plan to return New York to a “reimagined” public life, Cuomo admitted he is cautious about the lifting restrictions, noting any could inflict even more damage on the state and economy if the virus resurges.
“We have a clear uniform set of criteria, the same all across the state, all science-based, all data-based. We’ll look at those data points to see where it’s safe to open,” he said Sunday.
Stressing the importance of states coordinating their plans to lift the restriction, Cuomo also stated New York has “to learn from the mistakes that others have made” and encouraging residents that it was actually a “good thing” the tri-state area has waited to control the virus before reopening.
“We’re not the first to reopen, and that’s a good thing because you can look around and learn,” Cuomo said. “We want to monitor our reopening so if there’s any change we can immediately calibrate.”
Refusing to mention any states, in particular, Cuomo also touched upon the pressure many elected officials are feeling to reopen without meeting the CDC’s guidelines.
“There’s a lot of pressure… but pressure doesn’t mean you act unintelligent,” he said.