NEW YORK — Exactly 100 days since its first case of the coronavirus was confirmed, New York City, which weathered extensive hardship as an epicenter of the worldwide outbreak, is set to take the first tentative steps toward reopening its doors Monday.
Getting here took the sacrifice of millions of New Yorkers who learned to live radically different lives. More than 205,000 have been infected, and nearly 22,000 have died.
As many as 400,000 workers could begin returning to construction jobs, manufacturing sites and retail stores in the city’s first phase of reopening— a surge of normalcy that seemed almost inconceivable several weeks ago, when the city’s hospitals were at a breaking point and as many as 800 people were dying from COVID-19 on a single day.
Many retail stores, battered by months of closure, are readying to do business again Monday, starting with curbside and in-store pickup. Construction companies are adding safety features and stockpiling masks and gloves. Manufacturers, whose shop floors have idled since March, are testing machines.
State and city officials said they were optimistic that the city would begin to spring back to life. Testing is robust and growing, reaching 33,000 people on a recent day. And new infections are now down to around 500 a day — half as many as there were just a few weeks ago.
That is low enough for New York City’s corps of contract tracers, who began work last week, to try to track every close interaction and, officials hope, stop a resurgence of the virus.
“You want to talk about a turnaround — this one, my friends, is going to go in the history books,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Saturday.
New York City, like nine other regions in the state, was required to meet seven health-related metrics before beginning reopening. New York City was the last part of the state to do so; much of upstate has already moved on to Phase 2, which allows most stores, offices and hair salons to open, with restrictions on capacity and social distance.
The road back will undoubtedly be challenging. More than 885,000 jobs vanished during the outbreak, and strong gains are not expected for the city until 2022. The city budget hemorrhaged tax revenue and now faces a $9 billion shortfall over the next year.
And the reopening has been complicated by the vast protests for racial justice that have swept the city for more than a week and have forced government officials and business owners to unexpectedly adjust their plans.
Hundreds of stores were burglarized by looters who took advantage of the protests to prey on commercial districts from Midtown to the Bronx. Shop owners scrambled to cover windows in plywood rather than reaching for welcome banners. Police officers enforced a nightly curfew.
“We were planning to make a lot of noise saying, ‘Hey, we’re back,’ ” said Ken Giddon, a co-owner with his brother of Rothmans, a small clothing chain with a flagship near Union Square. “Now we don’t think that would be appropriate. I think New York City needs a week or two of healing before a week or two of selling.”
In areas hit hard by looters in high-end retail neighborhoods of Manhattan, some stores were not planning to open Monday. The executive director of the business improvement group in SoHo declined to even discuss reopening in the neighborhood.
On Sunday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he was lifting the 8 p.m. curfew a day early because the city had been relatively calm Saturday. The curfew had been scheduled to expire at 5 a.m. Monday, just as the reopening begins.
Even before the protests, some public health officials were privately fretting that the timeline set by Cuomo and de Blasio was too ambitious. They worried that infections could increase as people returned to work and commuters began to take the subway again.
But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it did not believe that rush hour would meaningfully return Monday — or anytime soon. Even when schools and Broadway are allowed to open in the fourth and final phase of the reopening, the authority is projecting ridership will be under 70%.
One person briefed on the authority’s planning said officials there expected the trains to be at well below 50% capacity at least through Labor Day — a calculation based on the idea that many office workers would continue to work remotely into the fall.
Many business leaders, particularly those in office-based jobs like technology and finance, are watching the transit system for signs that it is safe. The authority has embarked on large-scale cleanings and required riders to wear masks but said social distancing may not be possible if subways and buses carry anywhere close to their normal loads.
The city has yet to offer alternatives for how to move millions of commuters around. De Blasio suggested that many may drive. Urban planners and transit experts cautioned, however, that few would have that option and criticized de Blasio for not offering a street-level transit plan for easing commutes in the next phases of reopening.
City Hall said Friday it was working with the MTA to expand bus service and create new bus lanes around the city.
As many as 32,000 construction sites could open as of Monday, according to the city, the biggest part of the initial phase of reopening. The protests were not altering preparations, said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.
LaBarbera, whose group represents unions for more than 100,000 workers, said his focus was on making sure workers would be safe when they return, with masks and other protective equipment available and construction sites reconfigured to allow distancing, health checks and hand-washing.
“In the construction industry, by the nature of the tasks that are at hand, it’s not always possible to social distance,” he said.
The unions reached an agreement with contractors and developers to mitigate risk, he said, including staggered shifts, altered start times and more flexible hours, like a four-day workweek with 10-hour days.
Some construction work was deemed essential early on and continued through the state’s pause. Many manufacturers, particularly those that made protective gear and medical equipment, have also been operating.
But many shops were dormant for months. That was true for Roberto Gil, owner of a small furniture-making business, Casa Kids, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He said he left his shop suddenly back in March, leaving trash and bits of wood strewed about.
Over the past week, he has been cleaning up, painting, tuning machines and holding meetings with his handful of employees to go over rules for wearing masks, hand-washing and how to safely take lunch.
“Monday, we’re going to start with three or four people in the shop,” he said, adding that he would likely add more people to fulfill a backlog of orders.
“Once they’re in the shop — my shop is big — they have plenty of space to work,” he said, referring to distancing measures.
Gil said he was more concerned for his workers at lunch and during commutes and had arranged with one to start earlier or leave later to avoid rush hour.
Some businesses are taking it slowly and carefully.
Only about one-third of textile workers in the city are expected to be back at work Monday, said Edgar Romney, the secretary-treasurer of their union, Workers United/Service Employees International Union. Businesses that are operating have altered their shifts to reduce crowding and installed plastic shields to separate tightly packed sewing machines.
But many, particularly in midtown Manhattan, have remained closed, he said.
For retailers, the picture is even more complex. Just opening the doors does not guarantee that customers will return. Curbside pickup does not make a lot of sense for many retailers either, particularly in Manhattan.
Business groups said many retailers were waiting for the next phase to venture out — when outdoor dining is allowed, office workers are permitted to return, and shoppers are able to enter and browse around all types of stores, local business groups said.
The earliest that could begin would be late June, based on state mandates that each phase last at least two weeks. But de Blasio said Thursday that he did not anticipate the city moving into the next phase until early July.
“Businesses can be ready, but are the consumers ready?” asked Thomas Grech, president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce. “I want to demonstrate to the buying public, to the consumers out there, that the businesses are making it safe.”
When more than 100 workers return next week to Newlab, a technology hub in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, they will have the option of wearing a device that buzzes every time two colleagues get too close to each other — a high-tech way to enforce social distancing.
The devices, made by StrongArm Technologies, a company based in the hub, were already being worn by most of the 80 or so workers deemed essential.
“In the first week, people were getting buzzed all the time,” said Shaun Stewart, chief executive of Newlab. “It flashes and it vibrates. That alone — that immediately changes your behavior and your perspective on distancing.”
The city’s contact tracing efforts are far less high-tech. But for the past week, newly infected New Yorkers have been receiving calls from the new corps of tracers. City Hall did not provide figures for how many people they were able to reach.
“The beginning of any program is challenging,” said Jay Varma, an adviser to de Blasio on public health. But so far, he said, “people are willing to participate; they’re willing to give information about their health conditions and about their close contacts.”
Still, a jump in cases could overwhelm the system, as happened at the start of the pandemic in New York in March.
Officials are watching barometers of the virus’s spread closely, from new positive tests to emergency room data, for any sign that the newly flattened curve of infection might be arcing upward again.
The work of contact tracing has taken on new urgency because of the public outpouring of anger at the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in Minneapolis on May 25 in a confrontation with four police officers.
The killing, captured on video, sparked the nation’s largest protest movement in more than a generation. It also raised questions about how mass gatherings might spread the virus, with some participants not observing social distancing.
“On the public health side, this has been a really long, arduous nearly 100 days of something none of us had never dealt with before; and then you see that activity. Of course you’re concerned,” said Jim Malatras, a close adviser to Cuomo. “The top blew off. The top blew off across this country.”
Malatras said he envisioned several possible results of the demonstrations.
People who are asymptomatic could transmit the disease far beyond the ranks of the protesters. Or, if there is no immediate surge of infections, some New Yorkers may begin to doubt strict adherence to social distancing.
The impact of having crowds of at least 20,000 protesters on the streets would not be apparent for as long as two weeks, officials cautioned.
“The mayor is appropriately concerned about the risk of a resurgence due to the mass gatherings that have occurred,” said Varma, adding that “there is a lot that we don’t know about how people’s behavior will change after June 8.”
He said, however, that because the protests took place outdoors and many demonstrators wore masks, the risks may have been lessened.
The state and the city will not make a decision about moving to the second phase of reopening for at least two weeks, at which point the public health effects of the protests should be more clear, officials said.