New York

‘We Are Finally Ahead of This Virus': Cuomo Urges Caution as Clock Ticks on ‘PAUSE'

Nearly 33,000 tri-state lives have been lost to COVID-19 to date, though the actual toll is likely higher; the number of confirmed cases is approaching half a million, though infection is also likely more widespread

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What to Know

  • Nearly 33,000 people in the tri-state have died because of COVID-19, though officials acknowledge the real toll is likely higher; other indicators like infection rate and total hospitalizations continue to slowly decline
  • Warming weather presents new challenges. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio says the city will limit capacity at Hudson River Park Piers 45 and 46 starting this weekend and closely monitor Domino Park
  • NJ Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday the state's two major testing sites will now provide testing to asymptomatic residents; the death toll climbed to 8,952, including a 4-year-old child, the state's youngest COVID victim

For the first time since the pandemic hit, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared New York to be ahead of its war against the coronavirus Friday, though he did not elaborate on any potential changes to his "PAUSE" order, which is set to expire in one week.

The governor has said for weeks he expected to allow his shutdown directive to expire after May 15 in some lesser-impacted parts of the state while extending it in others. In an interview on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" Thursday night, he indicated some regions would start to reopen "in about a week," but didn't offer any additional detail in his daily briefing the next day.

"When we get to May 15, I'll lay out the numbers and we'll say, 'This is what the numbers say,'" Cuomo said when asked about the directive Friday. "There's no doubt that this is a terrible period, but we have to get through it. If we make a mistake and we act too quickly the situation is only going to get worse and it's only going to get longer."

It seems likely that some northern and western parts of the state are ready to reopen, but there are still 21 New York zip codes whose COVID-19 numbers are still too high where the bulk of cases are located (and are disproportionately impacting communities of color).

"Upstate New York is dramatically different. We will talk about construction and manufacturing reopening upstate. Downstate I don't see those numbers dramatically enough," Cuomo said.

There's so much we still don't even know about this virus, the governor said. Even the globe's top scientists and health leaders don't fully understand it. The virus has mutated into a more contagious strain since emerging in China. Children were once largely thought to be spared. Now a 5-year-old NYC boy has become the state's first to die of a rare COVID-linked syndrome that has been identified in at least 73 local children in the last few weeks. Asymptomatic people can transmit the virus; it's unknown how long antibodies provide protection, if at all.

In the face of such uncertainty, New York must proceed with caution, Cuomo said. Still, the worst of the crisis appears to be behind us. Total hospitalizations and intubations are steadily but slowly declining. New hospital admissions declined for a period but appear to have flattened around the 600-a-day mark. Daily confirmed deaths have plateaued below 250, a still-staggering number but one that falls mercifully well below last month's devastating stretch in the high 700s, and the lowest number in the state since March.

"We have shown that we can control the beast," Cuomo said Friday. "We are finally ahead of this virus and we are in control of our destiny."

As of Friday, New York state had confirmed 21,045 virus deaths, with Cuomo adding another 216 to the toll. New York City reports another 5,313 probable COVID-19 fatalities; those combined with the state's 14,388 confirmed deaths in the five boroughs bring the city's toll to nearly 20,000.

NYC Limits Capacity at Some Parks, Defends Social Distancing Enforcement

Conscious of the need to maintain progress, and witnessing setbacks in other states that have eased restrictions perhaps too aggressively, Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are refining their containment strategies in accordance with emerging trends.

Still, one proven tactic will be the bedrock of their response for months to come: Social distancing. Warming weather makes that harder.

"This may be the single-hardest place to implement those kinds of strategies, for us to live in that way, and yet you have been doing in such amazing, impressive, extraordinary fashion," de Blasio said Friday. "Never rest on your laurels. When you start winning, it's time to double down."

Starting this weekend, the city will limit capacity at Hudson River Park Piers 45 and 46, where the "configuration" lends itself to overcrowding. Expect an increased NYPD presence, de Blasio said. Domino Park will be closely monitored. Other parks could later see capacity limited.

The NYPD has been enforcing social distancing protocol for weeks and the mayor says the department will continue to do so, despite mounting criticism that likens police methods to "stop-and-frisk." Newly released data from the Brooklyn district attorney's office shows of the 40 people arrested for social distancing violations in the borough since mid-March, just one was white. Thirty-five were black, while four were Latino. All cases were dropped.

On Friday, the NYPD released fuller data that shows it issued 374 summonses for "violations of emergency procedures and acts likely to spread disease" citywide since March 16. Eighty-one percent of those went to black or Latino people.

De Blasio acknowledged some of the data and methods, including one arrest where a stun gun was used, was alarming. He said the city will keep improving training and protocols moving forward, but summonses and arrests may still be necessary at times.

The Sergeants Benevolent Association criticized the mayor's social distancing policies on the grounds that they have no guidance on how to enforce the measures, union president Ed Mullins said in a letter to NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea.

"We have no clear idea how this new order is intended to be implemented, and foresee a repeat of the same enforcement difficulties we have already experienced, including a repeat of the allegations that my members have violated the civil rights of New Yorkers," Mullins wrote in the letter. "To impute blame for racial disparity to the frontline officers attempting to enforce a vague and ambiguous Executive Order highlights our members’ concerns and is, quite frankly, offensive."

Mullins said that ordering a person not causing a disturbance off a public street and threatening them with arrest for not wearing a mask can "destroy the community relations." The union also expressed their unhappiness with being told to enforce a law they say the district attorneys are not prosecuting offenders for allegedly violating.

The SBA said it was that confusion that has led to some of the high-profile incidents regarding arrests in the city over the past few weeks.

"Job 1 is to save lives and enforcement is necessary to saving lives -- and we're not going to have proper enforcement without the largest, best police force in the country being in the game," the mayor said. "So we're going to do that, but we're going to keep working to make it better literally every day."

It's social distancing to scale that has driven the change in curve for New York, he and Cuomo say, likely saving many lives. As the city and state look toward reopening, it will only be more important in helping keep the infection rate down. To help trace the new cases that do continue to spring up, de Blasio said that 7,000 people have signed up to be "disease detectives" and do contact tracing for those who test positive.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has championed the game-changing potential of social distancing more fervently than anyone in America. Barring a vaccine or effective treatment for coronavirus, it's the most effective tool at our disposal.

"Social distancing is all we have to save lives. We’re saving them. But, we need to save more," Murphy said Friday. "Keep practicing your social distancing. Keep wearing a face covering when out in public."

New Jersey's toll hit 8,952 Friday, with Murphy adding a 4-year-old child, the state's youngest victim, to the toll. The child had underlying conditions. More than half of the state's deaths have come from long-term care facilities. Murphy has deployed 120 National Guard soldiers to the most ravaged centers to help with mitigation. The state, meanwhile, has launched a probe into the series of problems the pandemic has exposed at its nursing homes.

Overall, the Garden State is seeing improvement on core metrics like hospitalization and infection rates. Murphy reopened state parks and golf courses last weekend and says he saw overwhelming compliance with social distancing and face-covering protocol.

"That’s given us more confidence that we can continue to take other steps," Murphy said on MSNBC Friday. "We’re looking at beaches, you know, we’re trying to do, take the responsible steps we can in the face of something, which is, while it’s improving, we’re not out of the woods yet. There’s no other way to say it."

The numbers “are absolutely going in the right direction,” Murphy said at a news conference, and must continue that trend as a big decision looms: when, and how, to reopen beaches as summer approaches. He said the reopening of beaches would proceed like the reopening of parks in many respects, adding that he expected to give guidance on early steps by next week.

That means the state probably will limit parking and seek to enforce social distancing and other measures, though Murphy said it would be difficult to enforce masks on the beach.

“Folks are just going to have to accept that going to the beach will be an experience that will feel in some ways like it always has and in some ways like it never has,” he said.

Belmar reopened its boardwalk Friday. Cool weather and cloudy skies kept traffic on the boardwalk to a minimum afternoon.

Belmar’s neighbor to the south, Spring Lake, has its boardwalk shut, while to the north, Avon allows people to walk on its boardwalk. Point Pleasant Beach, one of the state’s most popular boardwalks, also remains off limits.

Expanded access to testing is key to one of Murphy's principles for getting New Jersey on the road to recovery. On Friday, he announced the state's testing sites at Bergen Community College and PNC Banks Art Center will start providing tests to asymptomatic residents.

While New York and New Jersey concentrate on bringing numbers further down, Connecticut has its eyes set toward a modified reopening in the coming weeks. While social distancing rules like requiring face masks in public will still be in place, some will be altered slightly. Gatherings will be allowed, but limited to five people. And residents over 65 are still encouraged to stay home.

As for the soft-reopening of the state, restaurants can serve diners as long as they have outdoor areas and operate at 50 percent capacity or less; bars will remain closed. Menus will be disposable, digital or written on a board. Offices, retail stores and hair salons will also reopen with strict limits on staffing, spacing and customers.

Infections have been confirmed in more than 498,000 people locally -- 330,407 in New York, 135,454 in New Jersey and 32,411 in Connecticut, though experts acknowledge the virus is likely far more widespread. New York City has more than 181,000 confirmed cases, but early antibody testing suggests up to 2.1 million may have been infected at some point.

Nationally, nearly 1.3 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19. More than 77,000 have died.

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