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Andrew Cuomo has a plan to start reopening New York — eventually

New York is still one of the hardest-hit parts of the country. But the state’s governor is starting to look ahead.

The art installation “Fearless Girl” wears a mask during the coronavirus shutdown in New York City on April 25.
Gotham/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

New York has so far been hit harder than any other region of the United States by the coronavirus, and the state’s nightmare is far from over. Saturday, 5,902 more people tested positive, and while that’s a substantial decline from the state’s peak (when some days saw more than 10,000 people test positive), it’s still more new confirmed cases in New York today than 25 states have had in total over the three months since the virus’s spread in the US began.

Nonetheless, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday that as case numbers continue to decline, New York will start to think about reopening. The plan is to follow CDC guidelines, which say a state should not start to reopen until new coronavirus-related hospitalizations have declined for 14 days. That will happen in some parts of the state sooner than in other parts, and the least-affected areas of the state will get to begin reopening first.

“Phase one of reopening will involve construction and manufacturing activities,” Cuomo said. “And within construction and manufacturing, those businesses that pose a low risk.”

Phase two will involve all businesses, with state leaders weighing how essential each business is, how reopening the business might affect community spread risks, and how those risks can be mitigated. “In phase two,” Cuomo said, “we need businesses to do that analysis. They need to think about how they’re going to reopen with this ‘new normal’ — what precautions are they going to take in the workplace?”

After each phase, Cuomo said, the state will take two weeks to monitor the effects of the changes — if a sudden surge of cases is detected, the state will take a step back and reconsider, while if infections remain low, it will proceed to the next phase.

Cuomo didn’t specify an exact timeline for the execution of this plan. But it may not be implemented any time soon: While the coronavirus has caused widespread economic devastation in New York and around the country, there is not widespread public support for a prompt reopening. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly favor stay-at-home orders continuing until they’re no longer needed to contain the coronavirus.

That hasn’t stopped many governors from putting forward plans to reopen their state economies. Some of them, like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to reopen nail and hair salons, as well as bowling alleys, have been roundly condemned by experts as incoherent and dangerous policy that will lead to a resurgence of cases.

But many of the more careful plans are designed to keep coronavirus case numbers falling while easing the economic and social effects of the shelter-in-place orders Americans have now been living under, in many cases, for more than a month. If they work, they could make the long road until there’s a vaccine or effective treatment more bearable.

The problem is, it’s not clear that there are any businesses that can be safely reopened while the country is still lagging so desperately on measures needed to fight the virus successfully. The best way forward — the approach used in other countries that have successfully controlled their outbreaks — is to test millions of Americans. The US is not increasing its testing capacity anywhere near fast enough to pull that off. It’s not clear if there’s another route to making people safe enough that business as almost-usual can resume — but proposals like New York’s are an attempt to find one.