To the relief of many, Monday, June 8 will mark the beginning of the “new normal” for New York City, with up to 400,000 construction, manufacturing and retail workers returning to work under Gov. Cuomo’s phase one guidelines, but a few City Council members still question whether the process can be done in a way that adequately protects their constituents from contracting the coronavirus.
“Health comes first, but then you have to look at how we get back to an economy that’s basically collapsed — what will it look like if we keep waiting? How do we jeopardize a healthy New York?” Councilmember Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) told the Chronicle May 26. Vallone tested positive for COVID-19 in early April, and understands the “treacherous journey” of contracting the virus. “I know how nervous we are about reintroducing the community and getting back to work.”
Mayor de Blasio released basic rules for the June 8 reopening, which include frequent cleaning of shared surfaces, mandatory health screenings for employees, the creation of distance markers, reducing occupancy to 50 percent in confined spaces and providing employees with free face covering.
Phase one is expected to last approximately two weeks before phase two can begin, which would allow professional services, real estate and financing businesses to resume. Phase three includes restaurants and hotels, while phase four, the final phase, includes businesses concerning the arts, education and recreation.
“These first businesses are going to be key,” Vallone said, noting that the move is especially important for small businesses. “They call me every day asking, ‘When can I open my doors?’ Saying, ‘I’m out of money, my employees have families to feed.’ We want to get them back, but first they have to be healthy.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, residents of Queens County filed approximately 173,840 unemployment claims during the months of March and April. May data is set to be released June 12.
“We need to channel our energies to areas that we know best — where we shopped, where we spent our money and time with our families — get them healthy, reopened and get the public back. That’s what we need to do whenever that magic opening is,” Vallone said.
One of the ways to achieve the reopening, according to Vallone, is for the public to accept their social responsibility to get tested. De Blasio announced on June 2 that universal testing would be available to all New Yorkers through the The Test & Trace Corps initiative by visiting nyc.gov/CovidTest or by calling 311 to find the testing site nearest them. Additionally, 1,700 contact tracers were deployed from neighborhoods across the city, with particular emphasis on those hardest hit by the virus, to manage, track and recall contacts of confirmed COVID-positive cases.
“Testing sites are not being fully utilized. The public can’t expect the government to do this,” he said. “The public needs to step up and get ourselves tested.”
Councilmember Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) echoed the importance of testing and tracing, especially implementing sites into neighborhoods that have been affected.
“You can’t get out of the woods on COVID-19 without testing and tracing, without knowing who’s infected and who’s not,” he told the Chronicle June 1. “We know this could flare back up anytime, so we need to ensure that hospitals have extra resources. We have to ensure that affected communities have food and security and that proper [personal protective equipment] is available.”
Richards, who represents a community largely affected by Hurricane Sandy, said he is confident in its resiliency and ability to stay strong in the face of adversity, but still shares concerns about reopening its small businesses.
“There are things we can do to get creative,” he said, referring to the Council’s proposed outdoor dining legislation that requires the city to identify open spaces, such as sidewalks, streets and plazas where restaurants and bars can follow social distancing measures and safely serve customers outside. “We can enjoy the fresh air and have a drink, maybe! At least some good Queens food ... We as New Yorkers need to get used to a different lifestyle — get your temperature checked, keep your mask on — it’s a new reality, but most importantly to stay safe ... People should try to enjoy what we historically enjoy, but not to love it too much.”
Councilmember Bob Holden (D-Middle Village), one of the legislation’s 19 sponsors, believes that the city should do everything in its power to open up business if they have the means to do so safely.
“It’s ludicrous to say there’s an exact date [to reopen],” he said. “We could open now if businesses have the means to social distance ... We need to work hand in hand with science, but I think we should open up businesses.”
An example, Holden said, would be that a barber shop would only allow up to two individuals into the facility at a time and that the chairs be separated with a distance of at least six feet. Workers and patrons would be required to wear a mask and items would need to be cleaned thoroughly and frequently.
“There’s so much we can do to open up businesses that we’re not doing,” he said. “Commercial businesses are the backbone of the neighborhood. Shop mom-and-pop stores — everybody has to spend money in their own backyard.”
On May 28, Cuomo signed an executive order authorizing businesses the right to deny entry to any customer not wearing a face covering, an order Holden believes should be enforced by police.
“If police say wear this, put it on!” Holden said. “We’re fighting a pandemic. If the governor says wear a mask, you must wear a mask. If you can’t practice social distancing, you must wear a mask. It should be enforced.”
“We need to take this seriously,” he continued. “I see some people saying we should go back to normal, but we can’t until a vaccine is found.”