clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

New York City, once the nation’s coronavirus epicenter, takes its first steps toward reopening

Some industries, such as construction and manufacturing, can restart.

A person wears a protective face mask in the Flatiron District during the coronavirus pandemic on May 31, 2020, in New York City.
Noam Galai/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

New York City is tentatively, but finally, reopening.

Monday marked the start of “phase one” of the reopening in what was once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in America. It took 100 days since its first reported Covid-19 case, and more than two months after the city first shut down, to reach this phase, and the five boroughs still trail behind the rest of New York state. Counties upstate have already entered the second phase of reopening, and even places like hard-hit Long Island have already eased restrictions.

Even as the city reopens, the scale of the crisis remains staggering: NYC recorded more than 200,000 confirmed cases and more than 21,000 deaths since the start of the outbreak. Hundreds are still testing positive each day, but the death toll has dropped dramatically since its peak of 800 deaths in early April. On June 3, the city recorded no new Covid-19 fatalities for the first time since mid-March.

The phase one reopening is still very limited. Manufacturing, wholesale trade, agriculture, landscaping, and construction are allowed to resume (though some exceptions existed for those industries during the full lockdown), and retail stores can reopen for curbside or in-store pickup. Industries are still required to take precautions, such as enforcing social distancing rules and requiring face coverings.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that the city estimates between 200,000 and 400,000 workers could return to their jobs in this phase — and return to public transit, which is still trying to figure out how to adjust to the realities of commuting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Anti-police brutality protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, which brought thousands of New Yorkers to the streets over the past 10 days, have somewhat overshadowed this milestone and complicated some of the questions around the city’s easing of lockdown restrictions.

City and state officials made clear that the coronavirus crisis is not over. “We are not out of the woods,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a press conference Monday, “but we are on the other side, certainly.”

The city was ravaged by the virus, which disproportionately affected minority and low-income communities. Thousands, many with means, fled. New York’s budget office has estimated it will take years for the economy to fully recover and for jobs to reach pre-pandemic levels. The state and city budgets have been decimated, and Washington has not yet committed more relief.

But Monday’s reopening is progress in a city that endured weeks of lockdown and screaming ambulances, saw its hospitals pushed to the breaking point, and became a coronavirus hot spot not just nationally, but worldwide.

“This is the first day of the reopening, and it was achieved by New Yorkers’ hard work,” de Blasio said at a Monday press conference. “This is clearly the hardest place in America to get to this moment, the hardest place to have a reopening, because we were the epicenter.”

New York City is entering phase one at a time of uncertainty

New York state is planning a phased reopening in four stages. To reach each phase, regions have to meet particular benchmarks, both health indicators — like a 14-day decline in hospitalizations and deaths — and metrics related to capacity, such as expanded testing and contact tracing.

New York City is the last part of the state to even partially reopen. It must remain in this phase for at least two weeks; if it continues to meet these benchmarks, it can then enter phase two, which will allow many stores (but not indoor malls) to resume in-store retail, and businesses, including financial, legal, and real estate services, to reopen.

That includes nail and hair salons, though all businesses must operate at reduced capacity and take health precautions, such as enforcing the use of face coverings for employees and patrons. Outdoor dining can also resume in phase two, and places of worship can reopen at 25 percent capacity.

Phase three will allow bars and restaurants to resume indoor service, with restrictions, and phase four will allow cultural institutions, like museums and Broadway, to reopen.

New York City is still a long way from these phases, and officials will have to wait at least two weeks to figure out whether the five boroughs can move to phase two. City officials have suggested the most realistic timeline for phase two is sometime next month, in early July. And even phase one comes with a lot of uncertainty.

About 500 businesses have called a hotline set up by New York City’s Small Business Services to field reopening questions, according to city officials. The city is also offering support to businesses, such as providing face masks.

Transportation is another major — and still woefully unresolved — issue. The city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the state-run agency that oversees the city’s subways and regional rail, still haven’t put forward a clear strategy to handle the influx of commuters who will be returning to work on trains and buses, places where social distancing, especially during rush hour peaks, is improbable.

The subway’s 24-hour service was curtailed last month so trains could be cleaned between 1 and 5 am, and that remains in place. De Blasio said Monday that the city will add 20 miles of dedicated bus lanes on some bus routes to ease crowding, but this won’t be fully rolled out until later in the summer and falls short of the 60 miles the MTA asked for from the city.

The mayor said 800 police school safety officers will be deployed to subway platforms to help encourage social distancing and hand out free face masks (there will be no criminal enforcement). Social distance markers have started to appear on subway platforms and at stations, designating areas for people to safely stand.

But these measures will be insufficient to address crowding as more people return to work, and the MTA has basically said trying to permanently enforce social distancing on public transit is going to be impossible.

Daily average ridership ticked up at the end of May to about 1.3 million on the city’s subways and buses, up from 800,000 during the height of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic ridership was nearly 8 million, and it’s unlikely to reach that level anytime soon, especially if New Yorkers aren’t confident it’s safe.

The pandemic meets massive protests

Also looming over the reopening are the recent anti-police brutality protests in New York City, which brought hundreds of people together night after night. Masks were a feature of the protests (at least among demonstrators), and though they took place outdoors, they defied guidance on mass gatherings.

Whether these protests will cause an uptick in coronavirus cases in New York City probably won’t be clear for at least another two weeks, given the incubation period of Covid-19.

Beyond the health risks, the demonstrations reignited questions about what the pandemic recovery will look like in the city. The shutdowns smothered many small businesses in New York City, and some of those were looted and vandalized during the unrest, adding another huge roadblock to recovery.

The city and state are offering assistance to businesses that were looted, including dozens of small businesses targeted in the Bronx. But even that help might not be enough to overcome the larger challenges of an uncertain economic recovery in New York and across the country.

The coronavirus has also strained the city’s budgets, as it has in other states and municipalities. That will require major cuts, and the recent protests have renewed calls to cut money from the New York City Police Department’s $6 billion budget.

Advocates and activists are calling to reallocate $1 billion from the NYPD to other programs, such as social services and infrastructure programs that will help with pandemic recovery. De Blasio has said the NYPD’s budget will be cut, saying it will be “something substantial” on Monday, but he declined to commit to that $1 billion figure. The mayor has said he wants to put the money toward youth-employment programs.

But even with these challenges, the phase one reopening is a critical milestone. New York was the epicenter of the pandemic in the US and, really, worldwide. New York state is close to testing 35,000 people per day, and the number of new cases is clocking in around 500, a level at which the thousands of new contact tracers can be deployed to try to control infections.

New York, along with neighboring states of New Jersey and Connecticut, continues to see deaths and infection rates decline, even as other places in the US are seeing spikes. The national death toll from Covid-19 now exceeds 110,000.

“If you had told me 100 days ago, we would be reopening, when we didn’t even know how bad it was going to get — I mean, we had some dire predictions,” Cuomo said Monday.

“It was frightening,” he added. “But New Yorkers did it. New Yorkers did it. It is that simple.”