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After Lockdown And Unrest, New York City Begins Reopening During Pandemic

Workers board up windows of a store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, where some nonessential businesses are allowed to reopen starting Monday after an almost three-month lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mark Lennihan
Workers board up windows of a store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, where some nonessential businesses are allowed to reopen starting Monday after an almost three-month lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After a nearly three-month lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, New York City is taking its first steps to reopen parts of its economy amid unrest over police brutality and racial injustice.

Stay-at-home restrictions begin to ease Monday, allowing thousands of businesses in retail, construction, manufacturing and certain other industries to restart their operations.

In the coming weeks, local officials expect as many as 400,000 people to join essential workers in doing their jobs outside their homes as the numbers of new hospitalizations and daily deaths in the city because of COVID-19 fall below levels from the peak of the outbreak.

This first phase of reopening is a big move for the pandemic's national epicenter, which has seen more than 206,000 New Yorkers confirmed with the coronavirus and more than 21,800 people die from COVID-19 since March.

"Getting people back their livelihood, that's what Phase 1 is about," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday during a news conference.

A resurgence of activity in the country's largest and most densely populated major city — home to more than 8 million people — is expected to test the limits of social distancing for the coronavirus. To reopen, the city was required under New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive order to ramp up its local contact tracing program, as well as testing for the coronavirus. Last week, the city announced that all New Yorkers can now get tested for free.

A day before the reopening, the mayor announced on Sunday the end of nightly curfews a day earlier than expected. De Blasio had ordered the curfew last week after some stores were looted while large crowds of nonviolent protesters gathered to demonstrate against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

"We are concerned that those protests may have increased the spread of the virus," Cuomo said during a news conference on Sunday, adding that public health experts he's spoken to share his concern. Cuomo urged protesters to get tested for the coronavirus as soon as possible.

The New York City Police Department's aggressive response to the demonstrators has also raised tensions across a city already devastated by the pandemic. After calls from many protesters and city council members to defund the NYPD, de Blasio announced on Sunday that city officials intend to redirect some of the city's funding for police to youth programs and social services as part of upcoming budget negotiations.

When "streets just can't hold any more people"

Some in New York are anxious to report back to their jobs in person.

"I miss going out every day to work. I'm not a house person," says Lucinda Doctor, an office manager who has been working from home for the Bronx Health Link, a health education and advocacy organization that is not allowed to reopen its office until the next phase of the city's reopening.

When she's out walking or taking short trips by bus for errands, Doctor says she has seen street traffic slowly returning to her neighborhood in recent weeks. But Doctor says she has noticed fewer people willing to ride in taxis or ride-hailing vehicles and more talking about getting their own cars.

Volunteers carry brooms after participating in a community cleanup effort in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx borough of New York City.
Mark Lennihan / AP
Volunteers carry brooms after participating in a community cleanup effort in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx borough of New York City.

It's a shift that some city officials worry may have lasting consequences in what has been a subway-centered city.

Last month, the New York Stock Exchange partially reopened for business with a requirement that its employees and visitors avoid public transit. There have been growing calls from City Council members to close off more streets to vehicular traffic to allow pedestrians to more easily keep at least 6 feet apart and restaurants to reopen with more outdoor seating.

"My worry is that as more and more people start phasing back into the workplace, we're going to very quickly reach a point where our streets just can't hold any more people," says Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which advocates for public transit in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has increased the cleaning of subway cars and has installed hand sanitizer dispensers at stations, and riders are required to wear face coverings. But it can be difficult, if not impossible in cramped train cars, to socially distance on public transit.

Sifuentes is concerned that subway ridership, which has plummeted by around 92% since the outbreak, will have a long and difficult road to recovery in New York City.

"Transit can't survive without the money that comes in at the farebox," Sifuentes says. "The real risk we're running here is if this drags on longer than it needs to, public transit may not look like it does in New York anymore in the future."

Sifuentes argues that population density is not the underlying challenge to keeping New York's public transit safe during the pandemic, pointing instead to the lack of access to paid sick leave and affordable housing among many riders who depend on the subway and buses to get to work.

"The problem is making sure that we have pathways out of poverty and for people to protect themselves [not only] when they're sick but even before they get sick," he says.

"I don't know who's walking in my store"

Many owners of small businesses that were not deemed essential are uncertain about their path as they begin to emerge from an almost three-month lockdown.

"I can't see how people will be shopping," says Josie Ultarte, owner of Zoe Zen, a women's boutique in Brooklyn. "People are in a mess."

To stay connected with her customers during the pandemic, she has been livestreaming on social media from inside her store to showcase clothing and other merchandise and lining up outside the local post office to ship out online orders. Her storefront is eligible to reopen to the public as early as Monday, but Ultarte says she is not opening her doors anytime soon.

"I don't know who's walking in my store. I don't think it's worth it," says Ultarte, who says she has been avoiding the subway and buses. "This government is just more concerned about the economics, the money, rather than people's health."

"The last big piece of the puzzle"

Guidelines set by New York state allow only curbside or in-store pickups from reopened stores, which have to maintain social distancing and limit the number of people inside to no more than 50% of maximum occupancy.

"I think that's really unrealistic. A lot of small-business owners, we have small spaces," says Leila Noelliste, owner of BGLH Marketplace, which sells its own hair and skin products.

Noelliste says she's returning to her 500-square-foot storefront in Brooklyn with assistants to make African black soap bars and whipped shea and cocoa butter. Since quarantining after the outbreak, she has been struggling to keep up with online orders on her own inside her apartment with a kitchen oven and mixers stacked on top of a bedroom dresser.

"They have been some of the worst months of my professional life," Noelliste says. "I have friends who are in danger of losing their businesses, but what people kind of didn't pay attention to is those of us trying to hang on to what we had."

With schools closed and child care centers in New York City available only to the children of essential workers for now, Noelliste is facing another obstacle as she reopens her business.

"What do you expect me to do with my kids?" says Noelliste, a single mother of three who's planning to pay for a babysitter when her children aren't staying with their father. "I just find that very, very confusing because it's the last big piece of the puzzle. I really don't know how successful a widespread reopening is going to be if there's not some kind of child care options available."

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Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.