The reasons cited by demonstrators in Albany last week calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to immediately lift stay-at-home restrictions issued to combat the coronavirus pandemic are real.
They have lost jobs and need to pay bills. And help has been slow in coming from an overwhelmed state Labor Department charged with processing unemployment claims.
The same can be said for business owners who face lost revenue and even potential ruin. The plight of small business owners has been made worse by the federal government’s bungled rollout of programs intended to help them and banks’ favoring their large customers.
The economic shock of the coronavirus and the Trump Administration’s incompetent response has been staggering. More than 26 million people have been forced to file for unemployment in recent weeks. Economic activity has tumbled.
Notwithstanding this agony, now is not the time to forget the painful lessons learned over the last few months and move too quickly in lifting the restrictions that have helped reduce the spread of the virus.
It may feel like it was years ago, but the first reported case of COVID-19 in New York state was March 1 and the first death occurred March 17 – less than two months ago.
Since then a reported 292,000 people have been infected in New York state and at least 17,303 have died.
Nassau Health Commissioner Lawrence Eisenstein recently warned that opening the county prematurely could lead to a spike in new cases and, in turn, risk overwhelming the hospitals. Again.
“We need to get our economy, especially our small businesses, up and running and get everyone back to work, but we have to do it safely,” Eisenstein said.
Cuomo has wisely mapped out a measured, phased plan to ease restrictions in conjunction with neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut, based on guidance from the CDC beginning May 15.
The first phase would be to reopen low-risk construction and manufacturing businesses in parts of the state that have experienced a 14-day decline in the COVID-19 hospitalization rate.
The second phase would be to open certain industries based on priority and risk level, with priority given to businesses that are considered “more essential” and with inherent low risks of infection for workers and customers.
The reopening plan is expected to start in Upstate New York.
County Executive Laura Curran said Monday that Nassau was “within striking distance” based on positive hospitalization trends. But hospitalization trends are not the only metric needed for a reopening and Cuomo has said he will take a regional approach that will include Nassau with Suffolk and New York City.
On Tuesday, for the 12th straight day, Nassau saw a decline in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations to 1,462, a 40 percent drop since the county’s high watermark and 1,000 less than just two weeks ago.
But this downturn took place under the stay-at-home restrictions. What happens when the restrictions are lifted?
Cuomo’s plan wisely calls for a two-week waiting period between the first two phases to give time to monitor the effect.
An antibody survey recently completed by the state showed that 14.4 percent of the population of Long Island had been infected by coronavirus.
Even assuming that all those infected are now immune – something strongly believed but not yet proved – that means 85 percent of the population is still susceptible.
The spread of the virus can be contained by social distancing – staying six feet apart – and the wearing of masks and gloves. A study released this week showed that wearing masks can significantly reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
But state officials say the real keys to taming the coronavirus outbreak and safely lifting stay-at-home restrictions are wide-scale testing for the infection, tracing and then isolating those found infected. Otherwise we are flying blind.
This was the original sin of the Trump Administration – failing to mobilize an aggressive testing program early before the coronavirus spread while downplaying its danger. And it’s a sin that continues to this day.
Epidemiologists say that if the U.S. shutdown had taken place two weeks earlier, 90 percent of the deaths would have been prevented as well as the collapse of the economy.
Cuomo, like other governors filling the leadership void left by the federal government’s abdication of responsibility, announced last week that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will recruit and train a medical “tracing army” to slow the spread of the disease.
The tracers would seek to identify people who may have been exposed to the virus and support them while they isolate.
The state has been testing about 20,000 people daily at hospitals, drive-thru testing centers and other venues. Cuomo said he would like the testing to be increased to 40,000 a day by mid-May. Even that, according to many scientists, is far less than is needed.
Cuomo took a large step toward his goal of 40,000 tests when he reached an agreement with President Trump last week under which the federal government will coordinate the supply chain of testing materials and the state will focus on having laboratories conduct the tests.
This was a major breakthrough for the state and, perhaps, the country since the Trump Administration has resisted taking responsibility for the supply chain of materials needed to conduct testing such as swabs, vials, and chemical reagents.
Cuomo then announced Saturday he was signing an executive order authorizing all of the state’s roughly 5,000 pharmacies to conduct coronavirus tests as a part of an effort to reach a larger number of people.
“If your local drugstore can now become a collection site, people can go to their local drugstore,” Cuomo said. “Since we now have more collection sites, more testing capacity, we can open up the eligibility for those tests.”
Cuomo also said the state would expand testing criteria to include all first responders, healthcare workers and essential employees, allowing those individuals to be tested even if they do not have symptoms.
That still leaves out a lot of people. And it will be those people who truly determine how quickly the economy can really get moving.
Recent polls show that 80 percent or more of the public supports stay-at-home measures that include keeping schools closed. And if people do not feel safe, it will not matter what the government policy is: They won’t shop or return to the office.
Hopefully, a slow and steady approach will persuade them. And saves lives in the process.