Covid-19 is rising again in New York. Can the city prevent another surge?

Covid-19 is rising again in New York. Can the city prevent another surge?

Officials have started rolling back some reopenings, and appear poised to close all public school classrooms

A commuter rides the Staten Island ferry in New York, 10 November 2020.
A commuter rides the Staten Island ferry in New York this week. Staten Island has the highest seven-day positive test rate for coronavirus of all the city’s boroughs. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP
Sign up for the Guardian’s First Thing newsletter

It seemed unimaginable: months after Covid-19 killed thousands of New Yorkers, the city and state finally seemed to get the virus under control. Infections, hospitalizations and deaths plummeted here and in neighboring regions, while surging elsewhere in the US.

Even as more and more non-essential businesses reopened, and large-scale demonstrations brought thousands of New Yorkers together outdoors, rates remained mostly unchanged this summer – hovering around 1%. So promising was this progress that New York City saw the return of limited-capacity indoor dining on 30 September.

But six weeks later, this cautious optimism has been overtaken by deep concern and fear, with testing positivity rates going up. After being almost banished, the pandemic is once again knocking at the city’s gates. New York City’s seven-day average of positive Covid-19 tests climbed to 2.6% on 11 November. There are 870 new cases and 100 new hospitalizations, Bill de Blasio said on Thursday.

“Today’s indicators are sobering,” the mayor said on Twitter. “We still have a chance to turn this around. Each and every one of us has a role to play. Let’s get it done.”

“We need New Yorkers to do their part,” Andrew Cuomo, the governor, said on Wednesday on Twitter. “Wear a mask. Get tested. Follow all health guidelines. Take this seriously.”

To stave off a devastating surge, officials have started rolling back some reopenings. Many New Yorkers wonder whether more dramatic lockdowns loom and the city’s parents dread the closure of schools.

Social distancing bubble dining tents on the roof deck of a restaurant in New York City on 10 November 2020.
Social distancing bubble dining tents on the roof deck of a restaurant in New York City this week. Photograph: Gabriela Bhaskar/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Cuomo on Wednesday announced a series of statewide restrictions that will start on Friday at 10pm. Indoor gatherings at private residences are restricted to 10 people. Gyms, as well as bars and restaurants with state liquor licenses, have to close at 10pm. Most of Staten Island, which has the highest seven-day positive rate of all New York City boroughs, will have additional restrictions, such as limiting houses of worship to 50% capacity, according to the New York Times.

The most dramatic shift away from New York City’s new normal: officials appear poised to close all public school classrooms, multiple reports said. De Blasio has stated that he would shutter them if the city’s seven-day positivity rate exceeded 3%. The newspaper reported that this could happen before Thanksgiving. Though the infection rate for schools is 0.17%, the Times report noted.

“This is something that no one wants to see happen. I don’t want to see this happen but there is still a chance to turn things around, obviously,” De Blasio said “But we are preparing for that possibility.”

The New York City public school system, which has 1.1 million students, now has about 300,000 pupils in classrooms, the New York Times said. While most parents have elected to have their children do remote learning, approximately 25% do a mix of in-person and distance coursework, the newspaper reported.

Ngozi Ebinum, who lives in the Bronx and has three children in the New York City public school system, said that hybrid instruction is already problematic for her kids, and she worries about a complete end to classroom instruction. She has repeatedly had issues with laptop connectivity and navigating online learning platforms.

“I want them to go to school, because this in-house is not working at all,” she said. “It’s kind of a mess and crazy. They need to do something. It’s difficult for us to connect … It’s not working for us.”

Instructor Chaya Baras helps student Kenny Scottborough, 19, at West Brooklyn community high school.
Instructor Chaya Baras helps student Kenny Scottborough, 19, at West Brooklyn community high school. Photograph: Kathy Willens/AP

“Please don’t close the schools,” she said when asked what she would say to the mayor about this issue. “Whatever they’re doing [during] the pandemic, they should figure it out, because we’re suffering here.”

Brooklyn resident Ethan Lichtle, who works in retail, sees the economic challenges that a resurgence and potential shutdown pose to the city.

“I think it’ll definitely hurt small businesses and restaurants even more than what it already has,” he said. “We’re all struggling and everyone is trying to get by, especially around the holidays.”

“You want to be excited for the holidays. I’m originally from Indiana, and I would really love to go see my parents and my family. I haven’t seen them for nine months,” said Lichtle, who bikes into Manhattan every day to avoid the subway. “It’s difficult. But I would rather everyone stay safe and stay home if that means we can eliminate the virus.”

Alan Kaufman, who owns The Pickle Guys on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, worries that a worsening situation could further imperil his business.

“Right now, my business is down, it’s got to be down at least 45%,” Kaufman said of his pickle shop, saying he had to lay off several employees since the pandemic hit. Many walk-in customers don’t come by any more. His wholesale business to restaurants and hotels is “almost done”.

Diller, the pickle-centric restaurant next door which Kaufman also owns, is faring worse, he said. “We’re trying to keep going. We’re doing whatever we can.

“Pickles have been down in this area since 1910, it’s sort of like a living museum.” Kaufman said “the actual pickle recipes are the same” as that era, when Jews came to the US from Poland to avoid persecution.

“You’d lose a bit of history, of nostalgia,” he added.

An image of Joe Biden on a screen in Times Square, New York City on 9 November 2020.
An image of Joe Biden on a screen in Times Square this week. Photograph: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg/Getty Images

While an uptick in Covid-19 positivity rates is cause for serious concern, several public health experts said that this does not mean it’s too late for New York City.

“I don’t believe we’re at a point of no return,” said Dr Jessica Justman, the senior technical director at ICAP and associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia Mailman school of public health.

She pointed to the new steps being taken to curb coronavirus and the high mask compliance in the New York City area – while pointing out “there’s still room for improvement [with masks] that would really help blunt the coming surge.”

“I don’t think we are going to have the same experience we had in April. We have so much more knowledge. We have much better testing capacity. We have a whole data system to track everything with so much precision,” she explained.

“We don’t have to go into a more immediate lockdown. We can take these more modulated steps and that’s what we’re doing. I believe our public health system is using the very excellent data that we have to adjust the dial.”

“Testing percentage now in New York City is in the 2.5% range,” she also said. “If we saw that go to 5%, that would make me really very concerned.”

Theoretically, public health officials should be able to act in a swift, targeted way to stay below the 5% level.

Brian Labus, an epidemiologist and assistant professor in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, school of public health, voiced similar views.

“I don’t think it’s ever too late. There’s always something we can do to stop disease transmission. The thing we’re dealing with is that diseases spread exponentially,” said Labus, who is on Nevada’s state taskforce to advise on scientific elements of the pandemic. “The longer we wait to take action, the harder it will be to control.”

Labus also pointed to the 5% threshold, saying “if you’re staying below 5%, it shows you have effective control of the disease [in] a particular area.”

“If New York takes action now, it keeps them from getting to that point.”