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Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Union Square Monday to hand out informational flyers on coronavirus and to bump elbows — the new handshake — with passersby.
Earlier that day, his wife Chirlane McCray attended a luncheon at Kong Sihk Tong restaurant — her response to xenophobia and a show of support for businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Meanwhile, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on Tuesday postponed his planned State of the City speech, slated for Thursday, “out of an abundance of caution.”
That same day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s most drastic move to date against the spread of the COVID-19 virus: The two-week closure of schools and public event spaces in a one-mile containment area in hard-hit New Rochelle — enforced by the National Guard.
The range of responses by top city and state officials highlights the challenging balancing act they’re now forced to navigate daily — protecting public health without further disrupting the economy or causing undue hardship.
“Everything is a trade off between how much risk you’re mitigating and how much damage you’re doing by taking those measures,” said City Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), chair of the health committee.
“Obviously, if we imposed a curfew and said everyone has to stay home, that’s a hell of a mitigation system — but it would be a shock to the economy,” he added. “It feels like they’re evaluating and reevaluating that cost-benefit analysis every day.”
Parade to March On
As of early Tuesday afternoon, there were 176 confirmed cases of the virus statewide — including 36 in New York City and 108 in New Rochelle.
The difficulties of responding to the spread of coronavirus have been exacerbated by a new disease that’s not well understood, and a shortage of testing capacity local officials blame on the federal government’s slow approval of private labs and automated tests.
For the most part, the de Blasio administration has been encouraging precautionary measures — particularly among people over 50 with certain pre-existing conditions — while trying to minimize disruptions. That includes a vow to close schools only as a last resort.
“I’m always going to put health and safety first, but that does not negate the fact that people’s livelihoods also matter. I am very resistant to take actions that we’re not certain would be helpful, but that would cause people to lose their livelihoods,” the mayor said Monday.
“There’s a lot of parents that don’t have a place for their child if the schools are closed…. There’s a lot of businesses that might not survive if they didn’t still have customers for a period of time,” he added.
“So there’s a balance that has to be struck and, and you know, I’m watching how different places are handling it and I’m not sure the balance is always being struck everywhere.”
Guidance in Flux
The mayor has said he’s basing his decisions on the latest assessments by health professionals on how coronavirus spreads.
While public health officials initially believed the virus was transmitted largely through prolonged exposure, they recently determined it can also travel through coughs, sneezes and saliva in close proximity.
That’s altered their guidance — including advising the most vulnerable people to avoid unnecessary public activities.
But with event cancellations accumulating across the country, and in the face of stronger mitigation steps in countries such as Italy and Israel, some people are questioning whether the de Blasio administration’s precautions go far enough.
David Greenfield, a former City Council member who now serves as CEO of the Met Council, said his nonprofit is scaling back on all non-essential meetings and events — including socializing functions for senior citizens. He encouraged Cuomo and de Blasio to do the same.
“Based on the information I’m seeing…. I think unless it’s a vital event, it would seem prudent that we should consider cancelling all of these kinds of events,” said Greenfield.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer told THE CITY she’s postponing her State of the Borough speech, originally slated for late March, until the fall.
She said she’s heard from community board members who are trying to figure out how to delay public meetings while abiding by deadlines to provide advisory votes on land use items.
“If you have a lot of older people coming, it certainly does give pause because I think they’re understandably frightened,” said Brewer. “If it’s something not necessary, it makes sense to cancel it.”
This week, the mayor did issue more guidance for how to protect transmission of the virus from public contact: It included recommendations for biking or walking to work when possible, avoiding packed subway cars and telecommuting, if that’s an option.
His administration also announced it was offering interest-free loans and grants to small businesses suffering from reduced foot traffic.
But he’s made it clear in daily briefings on the virus that one of his top priorities is to prevent major disruptions to the city’s life.
“There are places around the world and certainly even around this country where you see people radically changing their lives, where you see some panic starting to set in,” the mayor said this week. “You don’t see that in New York City.”
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