COVID-19

Mayor to Mad NYC School Parents: Cuomo Is About to Close Indoor Dining and Gyms, Too

It's unclear how long the closure may last, though the mayor said school buildings will definitely remain closed through Thanksgiving; he said Thursday he plans to provide reopening benchmarks before the holiday

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Andrew Siff, Marc Santia and Brian Thompson have team coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

What to Know

  • New York City schools move all-remote indefinitely as of Thursday after the city hit Mayor Bill de Blasio's 3 percent rolling positivity rate threshold a day earlier; there is no timeline set for an in-person return
  • More restrictions are coming soon; de Blasio says it's "just a matter of time" before Gov. Cuomo declares NYC an orange zone, which bans indoor dining and closes gyms and salons
  • The developments come amid a U.S. COVID surge that has left no state untouched; cases have increased in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. in the last 14 days. The death toll has topped 250k

Today in New York City you can have dinner inside a restaurant. You can go to a salon or barbershop. You can visit museums. You can't send your child to public school.

Parents were left in anxious limbo for a week as the city kept inching closer to the mayor's 3 percent positivity rate closure threshold. It eventually hit that Wednesday, according to city data. Now families for 300,000 students once again are scrambling to ensure their kids have the tools they need to learn fully remotely indefinitely -- and to ensure someone will be home to care for them full-time for the duration.

Mayor Bill de Blasio says he's hopeful the closure will last just a few weeks. He expects to provide clarity on reopening benchmarks before Thanksgiving after consultation with the state. In the meantime, city officials say they understand the sudden -- and all-too-familiar -- inconvenience parents are facing yet again.

"This is a tough day. It was a tough decision yesterday. It's not something anyone can possibly be happy about. I understand the frustration of parents," de Blasio said Thursday. "We will bring our schools back. But we're going to have to reset the equation. Something is changing, it's changing rapidly in this city. We certainly see what's happening around the country. We've got to reset the equation."

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"Our schools have been extraordinarily safe. We've got to keep it that way," he added. "We can't just stand pat with a strategy that worked before when conditions are changing. We need to come up with even more stringent rules to make schools work and testing is going to be absolutely crucial."

While the mayor sounded confident that schools would be closed for a matter of weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not seem as optimistic, warning "from here to January is very dangerous. A vaccine is on the way, but not in time to make a difference."

Many frustrated parents question why bars and restaurants are allowed to stay open when they're at higher risk of spreading COVID-19 and the city's own data has shown an in-school positivity rate under 0.2 percent — a number Cuomo says indicates schools are safer than New York City streets. One parent questioned why her daughters can get her nails done, but can't go to school — a question Cuomo seemed to identify with.

Furthering the angst, a new CDC report includes a graphic that suggests kids were safer in schools than on streets at the start of the pandemic, too. The chart shows viral spread continued unabated well after the spring shutdown.

A number of parents rallied outside City Hall later Thursday in protest, chanting to allow kids back inside classrooms. On top of the school frustration, other parents in Brooklyn were angry that some recreational activities at Prospect Park scheduled for this weekend have been canceled as the city's Parks Department said athletic permits have been suspended due to the spike. That left parents irritated, now limited in what their children can do during an already tough time.

To parents upset that restaurants and bars stay open as schools close, de Blasio had a stark message Thursday: It's just a matter of time before those shut, too.

New York City schools will move all-remote Thursday, the mayor tweeted Wednesday. The announcement came as Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrapped up a news briefing in which he said NYC could soon become an orange zone. NBC New York's Adam Hardning reports.

"The governor made clear yesterday that it's just a matter of time before indoor dining will close and other types of things," he said. "Anyone who heard those words 'orange zone' yesterday ... the orange zone rules are clear. And New York City will before long be in that orange zone status. Those restrictions are coming."

De Blasio said he expects them in a week or two. The ongoing growth of the city's daily case average, which topped 1,200 for the first time Thursday since May 8, makes it almost inevitable that the city's rolling positivity rate will eventually meet the governor's criteria for an orange zone -- unless, somehow, the volume of negative tests manages to defy current trends and hold the positivity rate down.

Handout
The city's daily case average has risen every single day but one since Oct. 29.

That is highly unlikely in de Blasio's view: "I don't think it's an 'if' the city is going into an orange zone. It's 'when.' By any normal count, just looking at the state's own number system, we're talking a week or two before we're in that orange zone status. I'm sorry to say that, but that's the blunt truth."

The mayor says he spoke to Cuomo at length Wednesday when the governor sowed the first seeds in announcing he was prepared to transition the city to an orange zone if it meets his micro-cluster criteria. That criteria also involves a 3 percent seven-day positivity rate threshold but requires the area in question to maintain that 3 percent rate for 10 days. State reporting of that positivity metric differs from the city. As of Thursday, Cuomo had New York City at 2.53 percent, while the rate from the city was at 3.01 percent.

"Those are conservative guidelines," the governor said Thursday, referring to thresholds in other major cities like Chicago that recently had to shut down.

Should the city meet Cuomo's orange zone criteria, indoor dining will be banned, gyms and salons would close and capacity at houses of worship would be limited to 33 percent. Schools would move all-remote, a moot point now for public schools but one that would affect private and charter schools, which are not subject to de Blasio's shutdown.

There is a "test out" option that enables cluster zone schools to reopen ahead of the two-week minimum shutdown. Cuomo said he would need to devise a new formula should New York City turn orange. The sheer volume of students in the nation's largest school system makes his current testing requirement impossible.

Testing will be a crucial component of reopening New York City's public schools to in-person learning, orange zone or not, de Blasio said. He urged parents to sign consent forms to have their children tested as they await news on new standards.

Orange zones also cap social gatherings at 10 people. That restriction has already been imposed statewide as of last week. Parts of Brooklyn and Queens have had their own cluster zones for weeks now; some are shaded orange, some are yellow. Cuomo established a new yellow zone, which mandates weekly randomized testing of students and staff but keeps schools open (until the mayor's shutdown, anyway), in Staten Island last week and new yellow zones in the Bronx Wednesday. He also expanded the yellow zone in Queens to Astoria.

Cuomo added new zones yet again Thursday: a new yellow zone in Orange County for the Newburgh area and a yellow zone in Westchester County's New Rochelle, Yonkers and other towns along the Hudson River. He also expanded the yellow zone in Rockland County.

A parents’ group that held a rally Saturday against school closure planned to deliver a petition Thursday at City Hall. NBC New York's Katherine Creag reports.

Transitioning the entirety of New York City to an orange zone raises new questions about Cuomo's micro-cluster approach. Thus far, it has targeted highly specific geographic areas within certain communities to curb higher-than-average rates of viral spread. By design, it is meant to stamp out clusters in small populations to avoid larger community transmission, not to cover a city of more than 8 million people.

Even on his conference call Thursday, as he announced new cluster zones elsewhere in the state, Cuomo reiterated the micro-cluster strategy is hyperlocal to avoid disrupting the larger economy and to maximizing the need for personal responsibility. He feels people are more likely to take that approach seriously.

"I'm saying there's a problem in your backyard," he said.

New York City is a really big backyard. Test any given neighborhood in the five boroughs, and you'll find many with positivity rates below that 3 percent threshold. You'll also find many with much higher positivity rates. The boroughs alone range extensively on positivity rates, from a low of 1.9 percent in Manhattan to a high of 4.2 percent in Staten Island, according to the state's latest data.

The city's largest teachers union said they've explored possible alternatives to simply shutting down the whole city. The United Federation of Teachers said that they were "looking at ways to target zones, boroughs or geographic areas. Rather than have the entire city close."

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here

Source: ny.gov

While New York, including and especially the city, has fared much better than virtually every state amid the latest U.S. COVID surge, Cuomo has warned for weeks the numbers will continue to climb -- a consequence of the domestic and international climate, colder weather and the long-dreaded holiday travel threat.

The governor sounded his most urgent alarm yet on that front Wednesday before de Blasio's school announcement, predicting a "tremendous spike" in COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving. He pleaded with people once again to be careful.

He repeated the urgency again in Thursday's conference call.

"If people are not extraordinarily diligent and act in a way they've never acted before, you're going to see a very large spike," Cuomo said.

It's against human nature to avoid family this upcoming holiday season, he said. In a time of such ongoing upheaval and anxiety, people desperately want to feel safe. Traditionally, their homes and families are environments where they do.

But they aren't safe this year, Cuomo said.

"Your safe zone is not your safe zone. It is dangerous this year. This year, if you love someone, it is smarter and better to stay away," the governor said. "You're going to see a significant spike post-Thanksgiving that will run into the Christmas holidays. The numbers will go very high. From here to January is very dangerous."

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The numbers are soaring already. Central and western parts of New York state continue to face heightened spread, but infections are also rising in New York City and its suburbs.

New York has averaged more than 4,800 new cases over the last seven days, nearly five times the number it was seeing at the end of October. Hospitalizations are climbing, too. The 2,276 total reported Thursday is the highest since June 8. The daily death toll, which is a lagging indicator, is also slowly rising.

The city reported about 8,900 cases over the past seven days, nearly double the amount reported two weeks ago

Treatment is more effective now than it was in the spring, which may reduce the death toll associated with this latest wave -- at least in certain parts of the country. But a renewed sense of anxiety, one that is all too familiar, is oversweeping the public once again as the holiday season fast approaches.

Coronavirus cases have increased in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam over the past 14 days. The national death toll topped 250,000 Wednesday, the world's highest, and hospitalizations are at record highs. There was also a record high in total cases across the U.S., topping 185,000 Thursday. The previous high was 176,000 last Friday.

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About 10 percent of the city's total COVID cases have stemmed from travel, which is why Cuomo initially implemented a quarantine order. He has modified that to a sweeping testing policy, saying no one should travel to New York without proof of a negative test. New Yorkers who leave the state for more than 24 hours also are required to quarantine upon returning for at least three days and then get a test. If they choose not to be tested, they're required to complete the full 14-day isolation.

The viral increases have been steeper in neighboring New Jersey, which also is testing at record levels. The Garden State's positivity rate topped 10 percent Wednesday, Gov. Phil Murphy said, calling that "unacceptably high."

Amid the soaring viral rates, New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, citing predictive models, warned the state's daily case toll could double to 8,000 or 10,000 by December or January "if we did nothing."

"We could be right back to March and April," she said.

The mayors of four New Jersey cities in the state's hardest-hit Essex County have agreed to impose a 24-hour curfew on all nonessential business if COVID cases continue to rise. NBC New York's Phil Lipof reports.

Asked on MSNBC Thursday whether he thinks he can avoid a new shutdown given the numbers' trend, Murphy said all options remain on the table.

"We'll shut down if we think by doing so we will directly impact transmission. And we look at all of our options all the time and we'll continue to," he said. "The next two or three months are gonna be brutal, in New Jersey and I believe in America."

Even just 50 percent compliance with social distancing and facial coverings would significantly help beat back the increases, Persichilli said. That includes taking precautions even with members of one's own family, she says -- a cautionary note of utmost importance with Thanksgiving just one week away.

The official mantra has been to avoid travel and to avoid Thanksgiving gatherings as a general rule, but acknowledging many won't heed that advice, officials have released varying guidelines. Limit any dinners to immediate household members. Do not have more than 10 people in your home at any given time. Persichilli said earlier this week that singing shouldn't be permitted and music should be low to avoid shouting, which could spew saliva -- and spread COVID.

"We are particularly concerned about multigenerational families getting together. We have upped our compliance, but there is no amount of compliance enforcement, no amount of law enforcement that can get inside of everybody's living rooms," Murphy said on CNBC Thursday night. "We are pleading with people, please do the right thing."

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No state has been untouched by the latest COVID surge. The White House task force bluntly stated in its latest weekly report that there is "now aggressive, unrelenting, expanding broad community spread across the country, reaching most counties, without evidence of improvement but rather, further deterioration."

The CDC now projects that "newly reported COVID-19 deaths will likely increase over the next four weeks, with 7,300 to 16,000 new deaths likely to be reported in the week ending December 12, 2020." It has already surpassed a quarter million.

Experts say life in the U.S. won't return to any semblance of normalcy until there is an effective and widely available vaccine. That may not happen for months, despite encouraging news from two vaccine front-runners this week.

As Cuomo said Thursday, "The vaccine is on the way. But it's not going to be here on any timeframe that's going to make any difference to the immediate future."

New York City school buildings remained open on Monday as the city’s coronavirus test results stayed under the limit that would force a shutdown. Meanwhile, New Jersey lowered its indoor and outdoor gathering limits. NBC New York's Ida Siegal reports.

Mitigation measures may be needed well beyond any vaccine rollout anyway. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, says people should not abandon masks or social distancing even after they've been vaccinated.

"Even though, for the general population, it might be 90[%] to 95% effective," Fauci said, reporting to effectiveness rates shown in Pfizer and Moderna trials, "you don't necessarily know, for you, how effective it is."

Up to 10 percent of immunized people could still get the virus, even at those high success rates, CNBC reported. Long lines to get tested have reappeared across the U.S. — a reminder that the nation’s testing system remains unable to keep pace with the virus.

Laboratories warned that continuing shortages of key supplies are likely to create more bottlenecks and delays, especially as cases rise across the nation and people rush to get tested before reuniting with relatives. Lines spanned multiple blocks at testing sites across the city this week, leaving people waiting three or more hours before they could even enter health clinics.

“As those cases increase, demand increases and turnaround times may increase,” said Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “So it’s like a dog chasing its tail.”

On the one hand, the fact that testing problems are only now emerging — more than a month into the latest virus surge — is a testament to the country’s increased capacity. The U.S. is testing over 1.5 million people per day on average, more than double the rate in July, when many Americans last faced long lines.

But experts say the U.S. is still falling far short of what’s needed to control the virus.

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press