Time to revive New York? No, it’s still way too risky, and will bring disease and death

City should follow Broadway's cautious move to reopening.
City should follow Broadway's cautious move to reopening.

We’ve all heard the steady clamor of politicized voices urging Americans to “return to normalcy.” This frightens me because New York’s public health officials do not yet have the weapons they need — sufficient testing and contact-tracing capacity — to keep the coronavirus at bay until a preventive vaccine or effective medicines become available.
Without strong public health measures in place, reopening our crowded, public transport-dependent city for anything close to “business as usual” raises the unacceptable risk of a new wave of disease and death. New CDC guidelines on occupational safety may be posted on their website, but they will mean nothing without trained teams of public health officers to make sure employers implement them.
Fortunately, New Yorkers are smart. We have surveyed more than 8,000 of them over the past eight weeks. Even though they deeply miss their old routines of work, school and recreation, they have told us emphatically that they will not put themselves or their families at risk without greater assurances of their safety.
Our surveys show that COVID-19 has led to levels of economic pain that could easily drive a breadwinner to risk infection in order to work or find a new job. Roughly a third of our households have suffered job loss, worry about homelessness due to missed rent and mortgage payments, or run out of food before they had money to buy more.
Despite this economic pressure, half of the New Yorkers we surveyed are unwilling to return to the workplace for fear of contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families.
The same fears that will keep people from returning to work will also prevent many of us from purchasing all but the most essential products and services. At the beginning of May, only a third of New Yorkers told us they would go to the gym if it opened on June 1. Less than half would consider going to a restaurant or hair salon. Most preferred to wait another two to six months before re-engaging in these activities. Many say they won’t do so at all until a vaccine is available. In a city that loves the theater and loves a ballgame, three in 10 New Yorkers say they will stay away until there is a coronavirus vaccine.
As a result, many of New York’s 220,000 businesses may find that staying closed is preferable to reopening and running at a loss.
A violinist, practiced inside New York's Central Park Wednesday afternoon during the coronavirus pandemic outbreak. May 13, 2020.
A violinist, practiced inside New York's Central Park Wednesday afternoon during the coronavirus pandemic outbreak. May 13, 2020.(Luiz C. Ribeiro/for New York Daily News)
New Yorkers continue to make substantial sacrifices, but they’re also making rational choices based on sound public health guidance. They don’t want to go back to work without adequate safety measures in place.
These include (1) robust viral testing, (2) a citywide contact-tracing army to identify and quarantine those who have been placed at risk, (3) a well-planned and well-enforced workplace safety program that protects workers and customers alike, and (4) continued adherence to common-sense personal safety practices like maintaining physical distance, washing hands vigorously and wearing face masks.

How ready are we to do this? Thanks to a heroic effort by public health professionals and the cooperation of our communities, New York has achieved three of the state’s seven milestones that currently mark the road to a degree of reopening. Our rates of infection and death, though still unacceptable, have dropped. One of the remaining milestones, adequate numbers of available hospital beds, will be achieved if COVID-19 admissions continue to drop.

The most complex remaining challenge is recruiting, hiring, training, deploying and supervising the work of 2,500 new contact tracers who will be tasked with assessing the potential spread of infection from each newly-diagnosed person. As with most of the challenges raised by this epidemic, it is difficult to set a timetable despite the political penchant for doing just that.

Los Angeles, the only American metropolis as large and complex as New York, currently has a far lower rate of infection than ours. Yet, on Tuesday, May 12, its health director announced that “with all certainty,” stay-at-home orders there would be extended for the next three months, a statement she “walked back” later with new orders issued on May 15, in effect until further notice, allowing only low-risk businesses and recreation spaces to reopen under strict safety precautions. Higher risk businesses are still closed.

The stakes are very high in New York. For our own common good, we must continue to go slow, go smart and be safe.

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